What Signal Does Your Sign Send?

All camps have signs. You passed a few on your way to where you’re sitting now, reading this blog post. What did they say? Some probably listed archery range rules, others pointed visitors to the office and one showed the mileage to Rome. No doubt there is a sign currently located at the top of the road with your camp’s name on it. All of your signs have words that convey facts and directions. But what else do your signs say about loyalty to your mission, attention to detail and commitment to children?

Faded letters and peeling paint are so common that visitors might think these elements are quaint or—worse yet—“campy.” I feel quite the opposite. Dilapidated signs risk being unclear to participants, which can pose a safety risk. However, they are abundantly clear on one point: your apathy.

Take the sign in the photo above, for example. (I’ve cropped it closely to avoid identifying its camp of origin, but I can disclose that the photo was taken in North America in August.) If the owners or directors did not care enough to repaint this sign before the season started, then what assumptions can I make about how the waterfront is run?

Some questions that come to mind include: Are the underwater parts of this waterfront as shoddy as the parts on land? Were the docks installed properly? Did the aquatics staff check for underwater hazards? How strictly is the buddy system enforced? What about the other rules? Do the lifeguards keep their eyes on the water? Do they regularly perform lost bather drills? Where is the rest of the safety equipment, such as ring buoys, rescue tubes, reach poles and a backboard? (None of it was handy, by the way, even though this camp was in-session.)

As a parent, this sign raises so many questions about quality and safety that my recommendation to my child would have been: Stay completely off the waterfront. Spend your time on the sports fields and I’ll take you to the beach when camp is over. Or, I might have withdrawn him on the spot and asked for a refund.

Extreme reaction? Only if you have a selective sense of quality or believe in crossing your fingers.

Another striking thing about this decrepit sign is its negativity. Whereas “NO DIVING” is the industry standard (and less clear when worded as “Jumping Only”), the admonition “NO SHOES, TOWELS, ETC. ON T-DOCK” could easily be reworded in the positive. “Leave All Belongings On Shore” is positive, clear and welcoming.

Linguistic research on negatives has concluded that people often do not hear the negative part of a sentence, especially when it’s more than two words long. For example, “NEVER SWIM ALONE” is sometimes heard and recalled as “SWIM ALONE.” If I say to you, “Do not imagine a blue polar bear,” what image immediately comes to mind? Scientifically speaking, better comprehension might be achieved with the phrase “ALWAYS SWIM WITH A BUDDY” because it contains only affirmative statements.

On the subject of negativity, some readers might feel that this post itself is downbeat. I prefer to think of my attitude as determined, not harsh. Signs are the informational face of your organization. Their conscientious upkeep conveys a confident smile whereas their neglect is the graphic equivalent of a smirk or frown. Fortunately, it is quick and inexpensive to send just the right message to your young participants and their parents this summer. Grab a scraper and a paintbrush and give those tired signs a face lift today.