The Semiotics of a Smile

Part of my MFA research was published as a book chapter in Signs and Symbols for Workplace and Public Use (Nova Science, 2013). This research focused on signs, semiotics, the language of pictograms, and what happens when designers don’t fully understand the needs of their audience.


Should 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.

In this chapter, factors influencing the effectiveness of warnings are studied, as well as the role of semiotics and the effective use of standardized, sign-based pictograms as exemplified by the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.