We See The Signs: Graphic Design, Typography and Surveillance Aesthetics

Mass-produced surveillance signage is not only about cameras.

by Jessica Barrett Sattell on June 10th, 2015

Typography enthusiasts notice instances of letterforms everywhere, from street signs to take-out flyers. What was once a specialized field within graphic arts and sign painting has become a practice of urban living; hashtags such as #letterhunting and #foundtype yield massive documentation of type in the built environment. “Typehunting,” the act of exploring public space in search of found typography, is one kind of dérive, or the Situationalist “drift” journey that freely coaxes unexpected, novel experiences and affects from the grind of day-to-day city life.

Chicago has a deeply rooted history in the typographic arts: a hub of printing and publishing, it is fertile hunting ground for any letterhead. I, too, began to document my life in the city through typehunting: street art, vintage advertisements, abandoned murals, discarded pamphlets. But as months turned into years, I began to notice that for nearly every twee, handpainted sign in a shop window, there was also a store-bought vinyl plaque or sticker announcing I was under surveillance.

The surveillance sign is not just ubiquitous in the realm of private business; train platforms, buses, stoplights, streetlights, and public parks are all dotted with announcements of video and audio recording. The many instances of mass-produced, store-bought surveillance and CC-TV signage are another form of the typehunt, albeit with a systematically ominous underpinning.

Business license with the seal of the City of Chicago affixed to it. In the upper left is a graphic of a megaphone with the text 'Alarm', sound waves emanating from it.

In my own city, this ubiquity is not just coincidence, but a symptom of misappropriated funds and shifting ideas of what constitutes an effective solution to public safety. According to a 2013 report organized by the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and published in the Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property, Chicago is thought to have access to up to 20,000 publicly and privately owned surveillance cameras. In the words of former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in a 2010 article from the AP, it has the nation’s most “extensive and integrated” network of such devices. Nearly every public inch of the downtown area is under video or audio surveillance, not to mention dataveillance through public wi-fi.

Usually, the mere presence of a surveillance camera functions as its own announcement of power. The prevalence of typographic and iconographic signage heralding this equipment is a curious development in the built environment. In walks around the city, I started to photograph instances of mass-produced surveillance signs, both in the presence and absence of actual surveillance cameras. Many were simply signs with no camera in sight, making me question if they were simply empty threats, or cheap fixes to the expense of purchasing and maintaining equipment.

These signs employ a banal kind of duality. By their sheer prevalence, they may be easily ignored, but still emit a concrete creepiness. They may be inanimate totem-objects, imbibed with the power to command attention, but they are also unreliable messengers. If I see one, I cannot know if I am indeed smiling for the camera.

Ubiquitous Visual Commands

Signage on a train platform reading 'Surveillance cameras on premises', with a graphic of a camera. Someone has placed two googly-eyes on the lens of the camera.

Surveillance is aesthetic; it allows networks, and the bodies within those networks, to see each other. As an industry, surveillance unexpectedly produces markets for graphic design and language decisions. Like many mass-produced objects, these signs use utilitarian, saturated hues of red, yellow and blue  –  tones of attention, warning and formality –  almost always with sans-serif lettering. Many are in Helvetica, a typeface troupe that once heralded the vanguard of modernism but gradually fell into a corporatized realm of ubiquity, restraint and control. Following typographic essayist Beatrice Warde’s assertion “Printing Should Be Invisible,” letterforms are most successful when they are clear, straightforward, and do not offer the viewer pause – the surveillance sign blends into its surroundings, only grabbing our attention when we actively look at it, or look for it.

The heart of the visual power of these signs comes from line drawings or icons, most often of bullet, dome, or other outdoor cameras. When graphic designers make these images, they usually trace a photograph of the actual object, hollowing it into a simplified visual form that attempts to provoke immediate recognition with minimal space. Signs may be material, but they dematerialize forces beyond what they are hinting at. They are stand-ins for physical objects; icons in and of themselves.

Outside of such camera iconography, many surveillance signs employ a grinning face, often the same illustration found on plastic shopping bags emblazoned “Your business is appreciated,” “Thank you for shopping with us.” They are a cross between a public service announcement and a request: “Smile, you’re on camera!” Although contested, some evolutionary biologists suggest that the gesture of smiling is a holdover from apes, who smile to show submission in the fact of a threat. The request to “smile” is a patronization disguised as a nudge, a saccharine veneer of optimism and humor. It is eerily similar to another unwelcomed (and almost always unconsciously employed) performative command: street harassment. These signs are one step removed from variations on catcall lines such as “smile for me, baby” and “I bet you have a pretty smile.”

Safety in Anxiety

A fence with signage reading 'This property is protected by video surveillance.'

From the camera and the TV to the smartphone and the satellite, technology has always created new ways of seeing and being seen, of understanding relationships and secrets. Signs are also technologies, albeit quintessentially analogue ones; they allow for a point-of-contact where the invisible seeps into the visible, where physical representation hints at digitized translation in multiple networks. They act as references within a sociocultural matrix where our likenesses are always being tracked and captured through machines.

The visage of the surveillance camera is tired and outdated, yet it fails to disappear from the built environment. It is a remnant of Cold War spy culture, which relied on a seeing-through-discrete-objects – cameras and recorders embedded in briefcases, watches, potted plants, and the like – but it is now front-and-center, proudly placed in public space. It is too clunky, too tangible, too fragile, and too ubiquitous to feel immediately threatening. Yet, the presence of a camera, or its typographic signifier, announces when we are not “safe.”

By submitting to having our image captured by machine eyes, for human eyes, we navigate a duality of anxiety and comfort. While we may be unsettled that we are being recorded, are we sometimes relieved to see a camera on a street corner, or a subway car? Even if reports show again and again that blanketing cities with networks of surveillance cameras does little to curb crime without fiscal resources to monitor them in real time, the technology remains as a visage of control, or as Malkia Amala Cyril of The Progressive notes, a way to monitor populations by categorizing members into “criminals” or “consumers.” Ubiquitous surveillance affects us all, but it is a sensation that is distinctly moderated by lenses of gender, race and privilege that, like the algorithms behind these technologies, are hardly neutral.

Surveillance Surfaces

Side of a building with a surveillance camera and a sign reading 'Warning: Audio & Video Surveillance On Duty At All Times'. The message is also printed in Spanish.

With the onset of dataveillance and rapidly multiplying technologies of voice and text recognition, it is easy to dismiss mass-produced surveillance announcements as kitschy paranoia or products of a low-stakes consumer market. But taking these typographic instances seriously points to deeper issues about unwittingly performing in public space, and to our fundamental rights to be unseen. Foucault’s panopticism is ultimately a technology of discipline, a way to connect opportunities to optimize power and streamline efficiency. That power is systematic, and can be embedded into the design of artifacts and architecture. Signs may be stand-alone objects, but they engender networks of surveillance, and hint at other structures of control.

The ubiquity of the surveillance camera sign, and our increasingly ordinary practice of ignoring it, also reinforces how we have gone beyond being afraid of panopticism and now openly embrace what Benjamin Bratton sees as its inverse: performance as an intentional disobedience from the frustration and pressure of moderated visibility, or “exhibitionism in bad faith.” That is, we are facing a distinct behavioral shift in response to being watched, but we capitalize on it. We engender consequences such as openly consenting to be monitored in exchange for internet-based services. We shop in public arcades that capture iBeacons from our smartphones, tag advertisers on our social media photographs in exchange for promotions. We accept engagement with ubiquitous surveillance in all of its guises, from cameras to Twitter feeds, as givens of actively participating and thriving in life. Even for all of the talk of “empowerment” and the connectivity that the internet affords, we ignore that our interactions are mediated by capitalist behemoths, and that “sharing” our stories on social media is free labor that benefits marketing metrics and CEO pockets: if we’re not buying anything, we’re the product.

Glass is one surface for surveillance; type on plastic (or paper) is another. Surveillance camera signs feed into a portension that the near future is uncannily flat, that our movements are monitored by forces constant, unseen and afar. It is in the eye of the beholder if we will be able to reclaim being seen as a force of subversion, not submission.