Playing with fonts and colours at Port Talbot

In recent weeks, the Welsh town of Port Talbot has, in the UK, become synonymous with its steel plant to the extent that it might be felt that Port Talbot has become the steelworks. In linguistics, this can be referred to as a synecdoche, and can be used in the same way that ‘Number 10’ refers to the office and person of the Prime Minister. Port Talbot, as an industrial town in south Wales, has endured all the difficulties associated with deindustrialization, although data from the Office for National Statistics suggest that the unemployment rate is very close to the national average.

All this sounds a long way removed from discussions about languages, words, and images, but the satirical website The Poke published an image earlier this month of what they claimed to be a ‘hacked’ safety sign from the Port Talbot steelworks. The image has been shared on Facebook almost 9000 times, and there are dozens of tweets featuring the sign, or a cropped version of it. Given that it’s hard to find any other discussions or publications of this sign beyond The Poke, it’s safe to assume that this has been photoshopped by the website and subsequently distributed widely to raise a smile during rather tense industrial negotiations. The Poke

The veracity of the image is not really the point. What is interesting is the use of fonts and colours to suggest one thing and, at the same time, playfully do something else. The constants in this sign are the (majority of the) icons on the left, the arrangement of the texts, and the fonts used. The subversion of the text takes place at the same time that the font, the colours, and most of the images are retained from the original sign. What makes us, the viewer, appreciate the sign is its similarity to the kinds of signs we see in daily life and, at the same time, the distance between the normal tenor of the message and the quips conveyed in the ‘hacked’ sign. The hacks inevitably work better if they resonate widely amongst the public, and so the reference to PR visits by government ministers taps into a widely held belief that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is unusually fond of wearing high-visibility jackets and hard hats.

This sign is not the first time that less-than-humorous life experiences have been lightened by creative uses of recognisable fonts. A growing body of images exists of mocked up signs from the London Underground which call upon the shared misery of commuting on the tube. Again, the font, the colours, the icons are all familiar – but the message is sublty (or less subtly in some cases) different and clearly designed to be witty.