Poetry of change

One idea that caught my eye over the last week was this series of Haiku traffic warning signs out of NYC. Created by Artist John Morse and posted by the NYC Department of Transportation, these signs have started appearing on poles across five different boroughs within the city. They were also placed close to schools and cultural institutions (presumably museums, art galleries etc).

I found this idea both intriguing and timely given that I’m currently reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Much of his focus is on what he terms System 1 and System 2, and how they work to inform the decisions we make. System 1 is essentially automatic and operates with little effort, while system two is more deliberate and controlled. We mostly rely on System 1 for daily decisions, while System 2 can be lazy at times. This means that many of the impressions and feelings it holds are informed by System 1.

While traffic signs generally focus on simple and visual messages that are universally understood, it also means that they can blend in and become part of everyday life, especially when targeting daily commuter traffic. In a way, they almost cease to exist after a while. However, these Haiku signs do an interesting job of shifting us out of the habits of System 1, as we make our way to and from work. These signs make us think – not too much, but just enough. The efficient and unique combination of words that we find in poetry means that we’re intrigued enough to want to read on and figure the story out. And of course, there’s a rhythm to Haiku that draws us in. It’s also an incredibly visual art form, painting a powerful picture.







“Poetry has a lot of power. If you say to people: ‘Walk.’ ‘Don’t walk.’ Or, ‘Look both ways.’ If you tweak it just a bit – and poetry does that – the device gives these simple words power.” – John Morse.

You can hear more of John Morse’s interview with NPR’s Scott Simon here.

While I’m not suggesting this approach should replace the power of simple and effective road and traffic signage, in combination, I think it’s a unique and interesting approach. It’s part of the many new and inspiring alternatives that are focused on driving behaviour change out in the real world. Bravo to NYC.


3 thoughts on “Poetry of change

  1. In Sydney we have road signs every few metres on some main roads, Clearway signs, Bus Lane signs, Speed limits, School zones, crossing signs, lights ahead signs (‘cos we can’t see that far ahead??), Parking times, merging… and on it goes. THEN we throw in a few advertisements.
    No Haiku signs here thanks, we’ve already got too much to read 🙂

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