Blog Details

comedy miscommunication


Last week, I took a trip and someone pointed out a funny sign placement. Let’s talk about context.

Airports Aren’t Funny

A lot of airports have designated no-smoking areas. Depending on the city, this could be for public health reasons, because airports are pretty flammable places, or both. But, when these two interests get in one another’s way, it can be pretty amusing. I’m talking now about the Norman Y Mineta San Jose International Airport.

There I was, outside of good old SJC, about to spend the next 12 hours or so in airplanes and airports. Now, you can take cigarettes on an airplane, but you can’t take lighters or matches. If you’re desperate on a long enough layover, you can usually pop outside and find someone to give you a light, but then you’ve got to go through security again on your way back in and who wants to do that?

(I wish I had some funny story to tell you about an awkward interaction with TSA. But, truth is, all of my interactions with TSA agents have been overwhelmingly positive. I know that they often play a role in situational comedies and that the role is usually more frightening than funny [see our earlier article on how not enough comedies are funny] but I’ve always found TSAs to be pleasant, patient, and helpful.)

Now, I don’t smoke a lot. We’re talking five cigarettes on a bad day – and it usually is to deal with stress. And, oh my readers, I get stressed about flying. I’m not afraid to fly, but large numbers of people in a closed space no where near my comfort zone puts me on edge something awful. So, I set out to say good bye to my darts for the day.

no smoking sign

“No Smoking – 10 Feet”

Outdoor navigation at the airport was good, so I found my way from the taxi cab to the designated smoking area pretty easily. It helps that before I could see the sign, I saw a fellow traveler in his own little cloud. I light my cigarette, put the rest of the pack back in my pocket, and put my lighter on the base of a lamp post in hopes that a traveler coming out of the airport will be able to use it.

My fellow traveler points to the lamp post. Part way up the lamp post is a sign reading “Smoking Area.” Then, he points to a nearby wall with a bank of gas hookups and its own sign that says, “No smoking – 10 feet.” He turns to me and says in a thick accent that I don’t recognize, “This feels like bad design.”

“Meh,” says I, “That’s more than ten feet away.”

“I’m not American. I don’t know how far ten feet is. But, it doesn’t sound far.”

“It’s about three meters.”

“Ah,” he says. He looks at the wall of gas hookups. He looks at the “smoking area” sign. He looks back at me. “So, how far away do you think the ‘smoking area’ sign is from the ‘no smoking – ten feet’ sign?”

I look at the wall of gas hookups. I look at the “smoking area” sign. I look back at him. “Maybe thirteen feet.”

funny signs

Some Signs Are Just Funny…

I’m not going to write at length about how signs themselves are often funny for a couple of reasons. First, it’s kind of been done. Demetri Martin has some great bits about “Road may be icy” being a less optimistic version of “bridge may not be icy,” and a lazy door deciding to be a wall with a “use other door” sign.

One I haven’t heard anyone mention are the signs on businesses that say “seeing eye dogs welcome.” I’ve always wondered who those signs are for when the person can read but can’t see and the dog can see but not read. I like the idea of the textured curb cuts and the walking signals that beep instead of just change colors, so maybe there should be a periodic audible announcement about the dogs.

When I was young(er) my friends and I also used to get a laugh out of the “slow children” signs often displaying what appears to be the silhouette of Wally Cleaver from “Leave it to Beaver.” We always thought that the sign should say “slow adults” and display a silhouette of a hunched man with a walker. Of course, the signs aren’t saying that the children are slow, but that cars should be slow.


…Other times, Context Is Key

Another reason not to just talk about signs is that it would probably rehash a lot of the ideas from the first article in this series about some of the funniest things just being humans trying to communicate. With signs, this is amplified by character limits – kind of like if everyone on the planet needed to use Twitter posts to establish traffic norms in real-time.

What made the smoking and no-smoking signs funny to me in this story was context. Neither sign was amusing independently but their relationship to one another was pretty laughable.

This is also fodder for internet humor – there’s one particular photo of a stack of signs telling drivers not to turn in any direction. I don’t drive, but I’ve been in the car as drivers have said things like “I’ll rear-end someone on this road because I’m so busy reading all of these signs.” Or, possibly worse, “there are so many signs on this stretch of road I just ignore them all.”



A lot of what set up this amusing airport encounter was a pretty serious issue. For an international airport, there wasn’t a lot of usability design. My fellow traveler commented on the design of putting the no smoking area and the smoking area so close together, but that wasn’t the only problem. Not being American, he didn’t know how far ten feet was – and again, there wasn’t a lot of leeway.

Not only did the sign only have American units, it was only written in English. As I recall, the “smoking area” sign had a green outline and the “no-smoking” sign had a red outline, but neither of them even had the “smoking” and “non-smoking” images.

If the signs only had those images and the smoking and no-smoking areas were designated by painted lines on the ground, the two signs would have been universally understandable and actionable without using any words or measurements at all. While I’m designing airports, the smoking area should have a drop-off and pick-up box for lighters. This isn’t just a suggestion, it’s a segue to the next paragraph.

My fellow traveler pointed out that the materials that he had seen on what was and wasn’t allowed on planes was all about what was “flammable.” To his point, “but the cigarettes are flammable. All of my clothes are flammable. My luggage is flammable.”

The literature should probably say “incendiary” – not just something that can burn but something that can actually start a fire. While more accurate, this word is also less familiar. So, it’s probably a case of sacrificing accuracy for understanding that accomplishes neither. (While I’m writing comedy articles, I went to college for technical communication. My fellow traveler told me he was a math PhD student.)

funny person

Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs

This was fun. Hopefully some good sign hyucks, and – who knows – maybe someone reading this is a usability specialist and the next time I’m in California the outsides of airports will be a little more friendly to foreigners, smokers, and foreigners who smoke. Please join us in the next article for whatever that article is about.

Leave A Comment