Signs point the way through Cardiff

As a visitor in Cardiff, Wales for 5 days, one of the most important forms of mass communication I encountered were signs. We hardly think about signs at all, but they abound in every form of civilized life. There are a few categories of signs I want to talk about: first, street signs; then, the various signs that help tourists find their way around; and finally, billboards.

In the United States, street signs often take on a familiar form: they are green (or sometimes blue), and either hang from poles at street corners or hang above intersections. In my home suburb, street signs are famously vertical poles, but even this subversive layout is relatively common, as many other suburbs and towns have the same layout. The layout of street signs in America is consistent between Los Angeles and California, and from what I have seen of New York in movies and TV shows, it’s the same there, too. Though I cannot personally confirm, it seems that the layout of signs is the same across the US.

In Europe, this is not the case. Even within one and the same country–the United Kingdom–the layout of street signs changed. Most notably, street signs in Wales were printed in both Welsh and English, as I covered in a previous blog post. Street signs in the multicultural city of London were printed in English only.

Another difference I noticed was common to both England and Wales, but different than the US. In the US, there are street signs at each street, so that drivers always know what street they are on. However, in Wales and England, this is not the case. There, the state-mandated street signs are on the sides of buildings, instead of on the streets themselves. This makes life easier for pedestrians, but it must be much more difficult for drivers. Today, Google Maps makes things a little easier, but in the very recent past before smartphones, it must have been very difficult for newcomer drivers to navigate cities like Cardiff or London for the first time, since they had to look at buildings to determine what street they were on. Some of the buildings did not feature any signage at all–often, this signage was only available on corner buildings. I don’t understand how drivers are able to navigate with so little signage I feel like I must be missing something, and perhaps I am. There were signs pointing pedestrians through the city, but I was definitely unaware of the car roadway signs.

(Edit: as of 6/9 in Dublin, I finally figured out what I was missing. As it turns out, the replacement for street signs are billboards which appear in advance of each intersection. These billboards tell drivers which street they are on and which one they can turn onto. On these signs, at least in Dublin, streets are usually demoted by numbers, not names. This explains why Google Maps does not feature street names, only these numbers, as it makes street names an important fact for pedestrians only.)

This sign from London gives an example of the mandatory street signs in UK cities.
This Cardiff Primark features no sign of its address whatsoever.

On the highway in Wales, the white roadway signs were reminiscent of the ubiquitous green signs on American highways in the information they presented (unsurprisingly, highway driving requires the same information everywhere.) Unfortunately, I only got one blurry picture of these highway signs.

That sign is right next to a location of the store “Carphone Warehouse”, which you can see in the background in better focus than the actual sign. This very popular store is an interesting case of dissonance between the branding and signage of a store and what is actually inside. Carphone Warehouse sells smartphones–its name is just a relic of an older era. However, at the Carphone Warehouse locations I saw, there are signs advertising smartphones on the front of the store–helping anyone who might be confused to know that Carphone Warehouse is not still selling car phones. However, most locals are probably just used to the name “Carphone Warehouse” selling smartphones–just like we Americans are used to TLC or “The Learning Channel” and MTV or “Music Television” changing to offer reality television rather than educational content or musical content, respectively.

Now, let’s move to the other category of signs–miscellaneous signs. For starters, here’s a non-informational sign at Cardiff Bay:

Just a note–That sign appears in Roald Dahl Plass, Cardiff’s plaza named after the famed Welsh author, right next to what seems to be a spitting image of Chicago’s Crown Fountain, the famous art installation that features faces spitting water onto the public. It’s just missing the spitting faces from the Chicago fountain. According to Wikipedia, it’s known as the Water Tower, or Torchwood Tower.

A few steps away from Roald Dahl Plass, I saw one of the most informative signs I encountered in all of Cardiff, which you can see below.

On the particular morning I encountered this sign, Dasheng and I were looking to travel around the Cardiff Bay. This sign gave us clear directions about how to do this. It was probably the most tourist-friendly sign I’ve encountered on the entire trip so far. It reminded me of those signs you see in big American malls, where it is hard to figure out where you are, and the sign responds with a big, friendly sticker reading “You Are Here.” On the sign below, the green sticker indicated our location. This sign allowed Dasheng and I to more easily navigate the area around Cardiff Bay.

Another helpful sign helped visitors to Cardiff University:

On Sunday morning in Cardiff, I attended mass at this church. Its sign helped me and other visitors and passers-by identify this church and its particular, reformed ideological leanings:

Here’s a similar advertisement next to a church with masses in Welsh.

At the end of the day, billboards in Wales don’t look so different from those in America. They advertise local concerts and events, attempting to help draw new visitors, just like in the States. The particular billboard wall pictured below, which is in one of Cardiff’s open-air alleys (separate from the arcades and squares I covered in an earlier blog post), featured mostly visiting musical acts, including Kylie Minogue and Sean Paul, as well as a local orchestra. Curiously, however, I noticed very few posters or billboards for Beyonce and Jay-Z’s June 6 visit to Cardiff--perhaps those two are so popular, they don’t even need billboards.

At Cardiff University, the community is welcoming to speakers of both Welsh and English. As we saw above, that welcoming nature extends to the sings outside their university, helping both English-speaking and Welsh-speaking visitors understand the rules of parking in a parking garage. This nature also extends to students who speak both Welsh and English, as some of the billboards inside the student union were written entirely in Welsh:

To me, this seemed to be a sign that Cardiff University promotes bilingual nature. I understand how important it must be to Cardiff natives to keep their local culture and traditions alive, and how the native language of their country must be one of the most important ways to do that.

Signs are such an important part of the structure of any city and country, and in Cardiff, I encountered plenty of interesting ones. Sometimes, their patterns mimicked that of the UK, and sometimes, they followed their own local laws and customs. In all, though, signs helped direct me through this new area of Cardiff, Wales, and their role in the fabric of everyday life cannot be downplayed.

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