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Pothole Warning Graphic a Sign of the Times?

By August 19, 2011July 8th, 2014No Comments

Some pictures are worth a thousands words. This one might save you a thousand bucks.

Technically speaking we’re talking about a graphic, not a picture per sé. It is a black silhouette (on an orange field) of a car is tipped into a crevice of broken pavement in such a way that the words “look out!” come to mind. It’s a pothole warning symbol, of the type that would be positioned on a road or highway to warn of rough pavement ahead. Its purpose is not too different from the universal language, no-words symbols used to warn us of curving roads, deer and falling rocks. Given how American motorists spend more than $400 per year, on average, to repair their vehicles from pothole damage, it can be a welcome warning in a world of deteriorating pavement.

This “potholes ahead” sign is a conceptual design by Daniel Walden, who received his MFA degree in graphic design in 2010 from the Savannah College of Art and Design (Atlanta, Georgia campus). Walden’s pothole warning system (PWS) graphic was his Master’s thesis. It was cited by Design Bureau, an online graphic arts publication, as “a simple idea that will potentially save Americans millions of dollars.” Feedback from members on the site is universally positive.

But those other things already in road signs – road curves, deer and occasional rock falls – are permanent fixtures of the landscape around roads and highways. Shouldn’t potholes be fixed, hence negating the need for such signs?

“Of course, while the ultimate goal is to fix all potholes immediately,” says Design Bureau, “Walden’s signage addresses the reality, which is that some take longer than others to fix — making the PWS a necessary temporary advisory system. When the pothole is fixed, the sign can simply be moved to the next sunken danger in the road.”

Given how cash-strapped our local, state and federal highway departments are, it seems to truly be a sign of the times.

Pothole warning sign inspired by interstate driving spoke with Walden to learn where he got the idea for a Pothole Warning System and if he believes it might eventually be implemented. What drove you to make this your thesis – was it personal experience with potholes?

Daniel Walden: [In] grad school, I would either drive or ride my bike the mile-and-a-half to class, and noticed I would see the same potholes along my route. Ironically, on multiple occasions, I sat in traffic behind city trucks with Pothole Posse bumper stickers attached, while looking at a pothole directly from my car window. I don’t know exactly why, I must have hit one of those potholes on my way to class, but when it came time to pick an issue, I chose potholes.

A requirement of the assignment was also to take into consideration the costs involved to manufacture and implement the project because we would eventually have to create these environments. My perspective, for this first PWS version, was framed through the questions: If the city is responsible for fixing potholes, then what should happen when the city fails to do so? Who should step in with a solution if the problem is continually not addressed? And, if you are attempting to help others but your chosen actions are illegal, does that mean you are wrong?

PI: Illegal?

DW: The illegal question came in because the original project ended up as me going around Midtown Atlanta, alone at 2 a.m., with hand spray-painted cardboard signs (Fluorescent pink with a black, hand stenciled, tire and crossbones. I chose fluorescent pink because I wanted the signs to stand out from traditional warning signs) and gluing them to the street and nailing them into light poles and trees. I also made a count down system (fluorescent pink with white stenciled numbers) so drivers would see the countdown 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 before coming across the pothole ahead.

I decided for my thesis project that I would focus on how to take the original PWS (which was very conceptual and only served for a short period of time in Midtown Atlanta) and turn it into a legitimate system that could be used throughout the entire U.S., serving to benefit all commuters.

[Walden also cites classes in Social Awareness in Graphic Design as an inspiration, where the function of graphic arts in society led him to ask the question, “Why can’t graphic designers use their talents to focus on finding problems being experienced by the public and create solutions through graphic design?”

PI: The primary graphic itself seems to work for me. How do you settle on a design other than by intuition? Is there a process such as a focus group?

DW: Thanks. Since I was creating signage that didn’t exist, I did a lot of research and approached the challenged by tying to focus on clarity. I thought that by using an already established visual language, it would be easier for people to understand the concept. Example: the car I used is based off of the universal car rental symbol. I did not use an official focus group while designing the new PWS signage. I worked with my thesis advisor, professor Henry Kim, while creating the new visuals and would show interested individuals as I made progress. Gladly, I have yet to receive feedback about someone not understanding what it means.

PI: What does the idea of this kind of signage say about the general state of our roads and highways? Is it that we aren’t fixing them fast enough?

DW: The general state of our roads and highways is the reason I chose this as a thesis project topic in the first place. The same feeling of frustration I felt about the Pothole Posse not fixing the potholes of Atlanta, I started to feel about the U.S. in general. I knew potholes were bad in Illinois, I had seen they could be bad in Atlanta, and driving through West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky showed me that the issue of potholes was widespread. Upon researching the issue, it became clear that potholes are an issue from New York to California. When I was chosen as 1 of 10 students [at Savannah College of Art and Design] to go to Germany for an artist collaboration project, I really got a sense of how bad U.S. roads had become when I saw how nice Germany’s highways were.

I did come to realize though, that regardless of how diligently public works departments repair existing potholes, the combination of traffic, water and weather means that potholes are going to continue to form. This reinforced to me that some kind of signage system is necessary because, right now at least, there is no way to prevent them from forming.

Walden has had at least one meeting with officials at the Illinois Department of Transportation, which was more than perfunctory. He is also personally mailing a PWS manual to all other state DOTs. For more information, contact Daniel Walden at

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