What the Street Graphics Books Say About Signs

In 1971, the American Planning Association (APA) began distributing a book called Street Graphics and the Law, which was authored by Daniel Mandelker and William Ewald. It recommended the uncompensated taking of signs and governmental control of signs’ design, message and content.

The authors stated that their conclusions were substantially based on 1956 research conducted by Rockefeller University professor George Miller with regard to the human brain’s ability to process multiple bits of information. Yet, when Miller read the authors’ assessment of his research, he observed “The situation would be amusing if misrepresentations of my work were not being taken as the basis for enacting ordinances to control street graphics . . . I must strongly protest the distortion of my own work and must deplore the enactment of restrictions based on such an inadequate understanding of the psychological processes involved.” Read Miller’s 1000-word letter that denounces Street Graphics‘ interpretation of his work here.

In the following decade, several Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decisions overruled some tenets of the book. Subsequently, in 1988, the same authors revised the book as Street Graphics. It retreated from many of its restraint-of-trade recommendations, yet the majority of it remained intact.

In 2005, the third version, entitled Street Graphics and the Law, was released, and a third author, from the sign industry, was listed on the cover as a principal author. He wrote one chapter that included some Penn State legibility tables. Most of the rest of the book remained intact, but, by implication, it appeared the sign industry endorsed the entire book.

Thus, this third version was viewed as significantly flawed, but a slight improvement over the first two versions. The question still remains, how good must good enough be? Two separate discussions of the 2005 book appear in the January 2005 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.

Wade Swormstedt

Wade Swormstedt

Wade is the former Executive Director of the Foundation for the Advancement of the Sign Industry and the former Editor and Publisher of Signs of the Times magazine.

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