Do the signs of our time work?

If you live in an urban, suburban or even exurban environment you will encounter a number of signs.

Signs may be so pervasive like the ones that are placed in subway cars or they may be intermittent, such as those placed beside interstate highways. Although signs are part of the visual landscape, most people ignore them until they have specific needs. In other settings, however, signs may overwhelm us, and our perception of our surroundings.

Take for example, New York City’s Times Square, where numerous billboards electronic or otherwise, compete for our attention, along with the distracting street culture (including other people standing, walking or performing) in this area. Alternatively, again taking NYC as an example, the Lower East Side and East Village is inundated with graffiti and street art. These items incorporate numerous messages competing for attention and often in dialogue with each other. In these locations it’s hard not to be overwhelmed with the visual information.

The purpose of signs

Signs are supposed to help, to assist, to instruct, and to influence. The most common ones provide directions for pedestrians, cyclists, or motorists to enable them to make decisions regarding their movement. Most of the other signs are advertising. The person or organization that created them wants you to buy something, purchase a service, or influence your religious, political or social beliefs. Still other signs, such as graffiti or street art, can provoke. Signs are meant to signify, to tell the reader to pay attention to the communication.

Types of signs

Predictably not all signs, regardless of the type are equal, not just in their placement and messaging, but in their size, and design. Sometimes signs are text based, whereas others are primarily symbols or images, and still many incorporate all of these elements.

Signs can be simple, recognizable and universal. And the message is rarely open to interpretation. Visual art, on the other hand, which incorporates signs, symbols and imagery, typically means different things to different people. Alternatively signs can be complicated, where their message is unclear, confusing or open to interpretation. Sometimes this is by design and at others by accident.

What’s a good sign?

Predictably not all signs work equally well. Although the message might be clear, the sign may be placed in the wrong or an improper place.

Alternatively the person who wrote it did a poor job, the medium chosen was suboptimal, and the reader of the sign lacks the knowledge or skill or visual literacy to deconstruct what it means.

If a sign it going to be effective then it typically needs to communicate a message that will resonate in the mind of the reader and it must be placed in a location where the observer will see it.

We can probably distinguish how good a sign is by its’ ability to force viewers to distinguish between the signal and the noise. More specifically a question that needs to be asked is how much labor does it take the viewer to figure it out.

The problem is probably not what makes a good sign, as the field of graphic design has a number of good criteria, but why are so many good signs placed in poor locations.

What’s a bad sign?

Most signs, however are not that helpful. The design, size, and placement are poor. Some environments are better than others for placement. A poorly placed sign in an airport, for example, can lead travelers to miss their connection. A well designed sign placed on the high point of a bridge spanning a gorge or river, offering free counseling services to people who are suicidal may be located in the wrong position. What is the solution?

How can signs be more helpful?

There are numerous ways to increase the likelihood that signs are effective. These include

• Securing the services of a qualified and experienced professional to design the sign; someone who is on top of their game.
• Asking a number of people for their input on what is the best place to put the sign. In other words, don’t simply rely on the installer to make this decision.
• Always keep the audience in mind. If the message is too high brow, few people will understand the meaning.
• Take into consideration the context (where it is placed) and juxtaposition (i.e., what it is next to).
• Seek feedback from users early into the design and placement process, to minimize costs of fabrication where we have to go back to the drawing board.

These recommendations seem deceptively simple, but either because of a lack of resources, or exhaustion appear to be frequently ignored. All in all the proof is in the pudding. Individual concerned with the efficacy of signs must constantly ask themselves, does the sign work, why does it work, (and why not) and how can the sign be corrected or improved.

David Jones 大卫 琼斯
Painfully Unhelpful Sign, Greenwich Park, 12-05-2006

Does where scholars live affect the subjects they choose to investigate?

What motivates academics to choose certain topics, fields, issues, and questions for intense study?

Numerous factors are typically at play here.

Although serendipity may be an important motivation, in some cases the place where and circumstances under which a scholar grew up may affect investigators choice of research question to ask, answer or explore. Thus the socio-economic class in which an academic was raised, not to mention their race/ethnicity, gender, and dynamics connected to the place of origin (e.g., city, suburbs, county, region, country, etc.), can have subtle or direct effects on the range of topics that they wish to explore.

Alternatively a prospective scholars’ experiences during their graduate training (e.g., a supportive mentor, rejection from a particular program or college, etc.) can motivate them to choose certain topics to investigate.

Access to grant funding may also be an important reason why academics choose one subject or another to focus on. In other words, in this context “research interests” are less of a concern than proposals won versus those lost.

Then again, some disciplines are more appealing to some scholars rather than others.

More importantly, assuming academics are still active researchers, does the place that they currently live have an effect on the questions they investigate?

Although these interrelated questions can be applied to different types of investigators and fields, the relevance of where an academic lives to the question investigated may be more relevant for scholars in the social sciences, in particular Criminology/Criminal Justice.

Why might living relatively close to a research site/or population under study be preferable?

There are numerous advantages of living close to the research site or population under investigation. To begin with, living in or next to the place or population where you also conduct your research, means that the expenditure of resources and access may be relatively low. Physical proximity may also sensitize investigators to subtle issues of context. This is especially true of ethnographic research and related types of “insider” research where lived experience could be useful.

Why living close to a research site/population may not be possible or advisable?

Living in or close to a research site, such as a prison, barrio, favela, or ghetto however, may not be possible or advisable. The place might be unnecessarily dangerous, putting ones health and life on the line. In the case of carceral institutions, many are located in remote areas, and thus living nearby is almost next to impossible.

This proximity can also minimize the objectivity one needs to do thoughtful and unbiased scholarly study. Thus it may hinder “insider” researchers to being open to accepting alternative and important insights. For example, one or more of the ex-patriot Lost Generation writers, who moved to Paris during the 1920s, like Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, often remarked that it was much easier to write about life back in the United States, in a detached and objective manner. Thus, you don’t have to live in an impoverished area to write with an authoritative voice about what occurs there.

On the other hand, conducting research about a place that is a considerable physical distance from where the scholar lives presents numerous challenges.

This is especially true if an investigator has chosen to conduct an ethnography, where access to the research site may require long hours of travel on a regular basis.

The reality however, is that researchers may have little control over where they live. Many scholars are significantly bounded by geography. Why? Universities are located in a variety of locations; inner cities, suburbs, college towns. And not all faculty can afford to or want to live in the same neighborhood or city where they teach (e.g., San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, etc.), thus they have to live relatively far away from their work. Scholars may also be tied to a city, county, or region because of the needs, wants and desires of a spouse, children, or eldercare responsibilities.

If researchers can’t live close to a research site or population, what options do they have?

Unless the majority of your research is quantitative, analyzing data collected by others, or primarily theoretical work, then it’s probably important to have to visit your research setting on a regular basis. For a scholar this may be on weekend, holidays, and during the summer when they do not have to be in class or have on campus obligations.

The next best alternative is to have either knowledgeable and trustworthy insiders, whom you are in contact with on a frequent basis.

No research setting is perfect. Cost benefit decisions always need to be made. The challenge is to carefully weigh the predicted benefit (i.e., quality of the study, probability of completion, etc.) against the expenditure (e.g., time, money, necessity of securing a grant, etc.). This is rarely an easy decision for most scholars to make. But one they must carefully consider.

Photo Credit:

Making the case for the creation a national Correctional Officer Integrity Database

Over the past decade numerous incidents of police use of excessive and deadly force and deaths of unarmed citizens under questionable circumstances have captured the attention of the news media, politicians, experts, activists, and the general public. In many cases, when the news media and police oversight bodies look into the employment backgrounds of the officers involved in these incidents we notice a disturbing pattern.

Many of the officers have a significant history of public complaints and sometimes criminal charges. These are just the incidents that have been investigated. And while some of the reports have been substantiated, others were dismissed due to a lack of or poor evidence. What is more disturbing is that when some of these officers have been let go from their law enforcement jobs, without criminal charges (a daunting task that most progressive police chiefs and commissioners of police will freely admit), they have managed to secure gainful employment at another law enforcement agency.

Naturally a handful of scholars have examined this issue. One of them is Criminologist Phil Stinson at Bowling Green State University. Based on the concept of police crime, Stinson and colleagues used publicly available sources such as news media accounts and access to court records to develop the most comprehensive data base on police officer malfeasance in the United States.

Now, however, it is probably a great time to expand this approach to other job categories in the criminal justice system. One of the most important additional job classifications is that of correctional officers (COs).

Why is creating a correctional officer database important?

Approximately 392,600 people work as correctional officers in the United States. Most correctional officers are hard working honest individuals who have a challenging and difficult job to perform. And depending on the type of institution it can be a very stressful job too.

Correctional officers (COs) work at the city, county, state and federal level. They work in all types of carceral institutions including jails and prisons. Some are more dangerous than others.

But we also know that some correctional officers engage in a variety of deviance, not just directed toward inmates, but to fellow correctional officers, and to the correctional institution itself. Corruption, theft, and sexual and racial discrimination, among other kinds of deviance and illegalities by COs occasionally happens.

Once terminated, some correctional officers, just like police officers in similar situations, can find a job in a neighboring jurisdiction. Although correctional systems perform a background investigation, including a criminal records search, on prospective correctional officer candidates, some of this due diligence is more comprehensive than others. Moreover tracking down and understanding the nuances of previous job history can often be superficial.

A national data base would assist correctional systems minimize the hiring of inappropriate candidates, and provide an additional tracking mechanism to be used by states, counties and municipalities. And once this system was up and running then experts could compare if there was any relationships to the patterns we see with law enforcement officers who have been dismissed..

What is the best way to create a database on correctional officer database?

Since these kinds of initiatives are labor intensive they are difficult to start and to maintain.

They are often the purview of graduate student’s dissertation topics where a considerable amount of free labor is donated in pursuit of earning one’s degree. This also means that the candidate needs to be properly supervised by a faculty member who is adept and caring.

Alternatively, sometimes this project is best done through a crowd sourcing mechanism. Scholars, and jurisdictions that are interested in this initiative should come together to start planning how something like a national database on correctional officer deviance could be rolled out, what would be the important component parts, the resources that would be needed, and whom exactly will pony up the resources.

Photo credit

Photographer: macwagen
Title: gotcha