Graphic commons: roadcode

I took a dérive to work the other day and came across road work annotations on the pavement. I’ve seen these many times before, and often photographed them, but yesterday’s discovery prompted me to pull the more interesting images together in one place. When cropping some of these square, the reference to Mark Boyle and the Boyle Family‘s work is obvious to see.

It is not artistic associations that fascinate me about them though, but the fact they are little architectural notes. They clearly have meaning to someone, even if their meaning isn’t always clear to me. When I come across them it is like I have discovered tribal marks during an exploration of unchartered lands. It also strikes me that if they were drawn unofficially on walls, they would be jet-washed off as graffiti.


Some can be read and decoded easily. For many though, I can only be guess as to what they communicate. Like music notation, even if you can not translate the language, you understand that someone else can. It is inherent in their form that they carry an important message for someone to follow.

Some appear as ‘workings out’, as if a math exam requires an assessor to see how the answer was arrived at. Others can be both a warning to pedestrians and a notification to contractors.


Presumably these marks should be temporary until road works are completed. However, on a trip to New York last year some of the pavement notes I came across appeared to have been in existence for some time. It seemed to me as if they had become a permanent aspect of the visual landscape of the city—their graffiti-esq dayglo abstraction looking like early Keith Haring sketches.


These marks paint an interesting hidden narrative of the urban landscape. Even if they are covered over when road works are completed, more appear elsewhere. Regardless of whether one can understand their message or not, they can be read as humankind’s desire for constant improvement. As such, they are a signpost into the near future. And just like cranes on a skyline, these pavement notes tell us towns and cities never stand still, that they are constantly evolving environments, and that the fabric of our urban environment is as much alive as its inhabitants.

Published by Nigel Ball

Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design

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