Check it out! The history of Signspotting. From its first prenatal kicks to its first book bar code. By photo editor and sign collector Doug Lansky.
My own journey had little to do with signs. I set out to hitchhike from Florida to South America on private yachts in 1992. It was a half-baked plan at best, and I only made it as far as the Virgin Islands. The only reason I even made it that far was because I got onto a commercial airplane and flew there. Once on St. Thomas, though, I did manage to get crew work onboard a 25-meter custom-made catamaran with a Jacuzzi built into the stern deck.
That job didn’t last more than a week, but my six-month trip metastasized into a two-and-half-year world jaunt with pit stops in the French Alps to work as a snowmobile guide and Israel to pick bananas on a Kibbutz and Bali to be a DJ at Club Med. I returned home and, much to my parents’ dismay, all I wanted to do was keep traveling. I leafed through a waist-high stack of photos from the trip and wondered who I could subject them to. It doesn’t take long to figure out that even your closest friends don’t have patience for more than about 20 minutes of picture flipping.
So I whittled the stack down to a manageable selection about the thickness of a paperback. I had snapped some pics of a few funny signs while I was traveling but I didn’t think much of it at the time. When sorting through my stack, I realized that some of the sign photos were in fact among the most entertaining. Maybe it was because I was such a crap photographer and those turned out better than many of the others. After all, photographing signs is relatively idiot-proof. They’re standing still and dressed in bright, reflective colors. Hard to screw that up.
Looking back, the sign pics I had in that collection weren’t all that impressive. There was an “Infart” sign from Sweden, a “Bad+Toilet” sign from Denmark (a formula for disaster), a “Butts Wynd” street sign from Scotland, and a “Don’t Walk” sign in Manhattan just beside a light that clearly indicated that walking was okay.
There were a few less memorable signs as well, but even those were more entertaining than the snapshots of me in front of various landmarks, so I kept my eye out on subsequent trips.
As I started to think about the idea of funny signs, I also began to appreciate them on another level. After all, when you visit a new country, you’re not allowed to vote. You can’t cash a personal check. Your library card isn’t valid. Yet they let you drive. They let you get behind the wheel of a multi-ton vehicle and zip around anywhere you please. What’s with that?
Somehow we’re expected to navigate the road and pick up the traffic nuances – perhaps even adjust to a steering wheel on the opposite side of the car while driving on the opposite side of the road – all before the first lane change.
All this is, of course, before you even throw a few wacked-out signs into the equation: the road-side traffic symbols that look more confusing than psych-test ink blots, mangled English, and the occasional screwball posting that almost stops us in our tracks (if we could just locate the brakes fast enough in that rental car!).
When I ended my five-year contract to travel the world and write a weekly column for the Chicago Tribune Syndicate, mostly due to the birth of my first child, I thought I’d substitute funny signs for my column. I figured this would be an easy swap since editors were regularly complaining about the shrinking news hole, yet voicing a demand for more fun, edgy material. About six newspapers began to run Signspotting weekly.
The signs started coming in. First, about 10 per week. Then 20. For five years I downloaded and cataloged signs, paying $50 per week out of my own pocket. With web design and maintenance thrown in I watched the project grow about $20,000 into debt.
Signspotting, the book proposal, had been informally accepted by the Lonely Planet’s US office three years after I began collecting them. LP’s US office thought it had potential and wanted to push it through headquarters for a global release. During this time the tragedy of 9-11 struck, which not only grounded all flights, but also all humor projects. About 18 months later, Tony Wheeler visited Stockholm and I interviewed him for an inflight magazine, where I was serving as travel editor. I had met him a few times previously, but this was our first chance to chat without near constant interruption. After the 30-minute interview, he had nothing planned so I took him kayaking around Stockholm. I mentioned briefly that LP was still sitting on my Signspotting book proposal during the kayak trip, but he didn’t respond and I didn’t want to push the issue. Later that evening at my apartment where he joined my wife and me for dinner, I pointed out the floor-to-ceiling cabinet filled with sign photos taking up half of my work space. He didn’t seem interested so I didn’t say another word. About a month later, he emailed me out of the blue with a “new idea” that I could put together a funny sign book for them. “Funny you should mention it”, I wrote back.