The Semiotics of a Smile: Signs of Failure on Public Trails in Dallas, TX

KT-LookBefore“The Semiotics of a Smile” was born out of personal frustration while cycling along the Katy Trail in Dallas, TX in 2011. There are around a dozen different smile-based “warning” signs scattered along this busy, inner-city hike-and-bike trail, but the messages are cryptic and require repeated, stationary viewings in order to properly interpret them. Not ideal for anyone moving faster than a slow crawl. I began to research the politics of who designed them and why. I observed and interviewed dozens of trail users. Then I dug into a deep study of psychology, semiotics and trail usage around the U.S. and eventually put it together in a book chapter in Signs and Symbols for Workplace and Public Use, published by Nova Science in 2013.

See below for a link to the full pdf.


KT-ListenShould a warning sign make one smile? To put it another way, can a warning sign be perceived as such — or even taken seriously — if the warning is communicated in a cheerful way? A series of signs installed in 2011 along hike-and-bike trails in Dallas, Texas appears to be testing this hypothesis. Officially known as the “Happy Trails” campaign, the signs feature stylized green and orange pictograms that resemble cheerful, smiling faces combined with phrases such as “listen for others” and “look both ways.”

Although intended to promote positive reinforcement of safe trail behaviors, the signs have received a surprising amount of negative feedback from Dallas citizens, journalists and at least one city council member, who have all voiced frustration at the signs’ use of the “incomprehensible,” smile-based pictograms. Indeed, in a busy public area such as a hike-and-bike trail — where tens of thousands of people per day may be cycling, jogging, skating, pushing strollers, walking their dogs or just walking — speed of comprehension is imperative so that the various types of trail users interacting in this environment can easily understand the sign-based messages and respond accordingly.


Download the full, published paper here (and please cite accordingly).