Why you should care

Because how we navigate the world has changed dramatically in the last decade, while street signs are stuck at blah.

Getting around cities has become pretty high-tech. We can use Waze and Google Maps to avoid traffic problems, stream NPR from a pocket-size device and cruise through neighborhoods listening to Siri in the cockpits of our ever-smarter cars. But while GPS navigation systems tell us where to go, the physical signs posted on our streets and sidewalks remain surprisingly archaic. Some may be clear and backlit, but most street signs look just as they did 50 years ago.

Homing in on an everyday urban element that has received little attention and even less innovation, Mojtaba Raeisi, an industrial designer based in Tehran, Iran, has come up with a concept for the ultimate pedestrian street sign.

Current urban signs seem designed to follow an address instead of guiding people to their destinations.

You’ve probably seen the “You Are Here” maps at shopping malls or mass transit stops that are impossible to decipher quickly. With his design concept, Raeisi is striving to make street signs that convey what’s on a particular block as simple and easy to digest as possible. The idea is that when you’re standing at an intersection, you can see what’s on the street ahead of you in a clear index that points you to landmarks such as stores, coffee shops, restaurants, transit stops and hospitals.

“Current urban signs seem designed to follow an address instead of guiding people to their destinations,” Raeisi told OZY. “They provide very limited information about facilities and businesses, which people usually are looking for.”

True enough, but as Jeff Wood, an urban planner and principal at the Overhead Wire consulting firm, points out, while indexes may seem inherently helpful, there’s a question of upkeep. “Shops come and go, and it’s possible that this could become an expensive and underused tool.” Cost? It’s still a concept, so we don’t know yet, and Raeisi can’t provide a number. But it sure won’t come cheap.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Raeisi’s approach is that nothing is digital.

Raeisi’s objective is to help solve the visitor dilemma: You’re new in town and end up wasting a lot of time looking for places, asking people for help and getting confused. With an index, he hopes to direct people to an area’s amenities just like a resident might. And he wants to make the sign universal by including pictograms and illustrations so people with limited literacy or who don’t speak the local language can quickly grasp what’s where.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Raeisi’s approach is that nothing is digital. Just as everything becomes Wi-Fi-enabled and smart these days — dishwashers, toothbrushes and even plants— Raeisi told OZY that one of his guiding principles was to maintain respect for our urban surroundings.

And sometimes we need to dispense with and disconnect from new technologies so we can stroll through our cities, enjoy the landscape and interact physically with our environment, Raeisi added. The other obvious benefit? Withanalog signs, no one need worry about getting lost if the power goes out.

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