Signs of the Times

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Posted on Facebook 3/7/13

In response to a weeks-long online dialogue about signage:

What we do not understand, we fear. Or reject. Or ignore. Sometimes, to our peril. And if I don’t understand the return on a certain investment, I fail to make the investment — and lose accordingly. Just because I don’t understand the science of signage doesn’t make it dangerous. But I can suffer loss if the science of signage is made available to me and I reject it because I don’t understand it, or don’t understand the return I will gain upon my investing in it.

The science of signage makes it possible to target the many thousands of people who drive through Ipswich, passing through our downtown. Not just people who are consciously looking for something to spend money on in Ipswich. These people are perhaps tragically few and far between. Scientifically rendered signage in Ipswich would interrupt the mental journey of the passers-through, get their attention (which we don’t have now), make them aware of the numerous reasons they should stop and spend money here (which many are not aware of now), motivate them to do exactly this (at the moment, or later, as they’re able), and guide them to a smooth, enjoyable experience whenever they decide to act on the spend-in-Ipswich impulse that we’ve planted, or facilitated, with our strategically rendered signage.

A signage consultant does not drive through town, scribble a few notes, and submit a bill for $30,000. The marketing science involved in this process is complex. A knowledgeable, experienced marketing professional studies the flow of foot traffic, of automotive traffic, of available parking, of the proximity of parking to sales points, of the visibility of signs, of the colors and fonts and type sizes which have enormous bearing on the effectiveness of a sign, of the context (the junk around signs that make them virtually invisible to a potential spender on her way from Groveland to Gloucester). A signage consultant suggests ways to encourage the flow of dollars into Ipswich from a couple who routinely drive through Ipswich and never realize that they could plan a date night here.

This is not a matter of walking through town and saying, “Look, there’s a sign. There’s another sign. We have all the signs we need.” If we had all the signs we needed, or if the signs we have were adequate, then none of our businesses would close, because there would be so much retail traffic in Ipswich. If we are satisfied with the level of business we have now (as some have suggested on this Facebook page), and we really only want Ipswich residents as customers, then our downtown is doomed to die a slow and agonizing death, because Ipswich does not have a large enough population to feed its own retail businesses. To make decisions which ignore the importance of retail spending by out-of-towners is to consign Ipswich to the long list of deteriorating towns across America. If we are satisfied with the level of business we have now from non-Ipswich-resident customers, then we will likewise sputter and struggle, as new Ipswich businesses continue to start up — and then flare out.

It has been said on this Facebook page, and elsewhere, that if the downtown businesses want better signs, they should pony up themselves, and not stick the taxpayers (I’m paraphrasing). Business owners pay not only personal taxes like anybody else in Ipswich, but also taxes on their business transactions. Businesses bear a special part of the tax burden in Ipswich. And when businesses thrive, they pay more taxes. It’s good for all the people of Ipswich when Ipswich businesses do well. This is not an “us or them” situation. This is an “us together” situation. It is how towns like Ipswich have thrived for centuries. To miss this fact of life is to succumb to the narrow “every tax is a bad tax” view that has contributed greatly to making the American South what it is today. We are not Texans. This is Ipswich, and we are better than this. We are homeowners and renters and business owners and stay-at-home moms and educators and entertainers and restaurateurs and karate teachers. Something that helps all of us helps me. Unless I fail to grasp this fact, and I fight to kill something that will help all of us, because I can’t understand how it will help me, me, me.

There is no one more affectionate toward Ipswich’s historic past than I. It was a major factor in my decision to move here and spend the rest of my life here. At the same time, it is a fact of life that we grow or die. Because of natural attrition, we must grow even if we only hope to stay even, to maintain the status quo. If we make decisions designed to maintain the status quo, we will suffer a gradual decay. We must be at least somewhat progressive in order to preserve what we have. We must be at least a little daring, and learn some new things, and embrace some small measure of risk, in order to have a better future than the present, and a better present than the past.

I was out of the country for two weeks, with the charity I lead, and fell quite ill. I was still very sick, back home here in Ipswich, and unable to attend the Board of Selectmen’s meeting when this question was raised. I was disappointed to learn that a majority of selectmen could not turn back the objections of those who failed to understand the significance of the “signage consultant” budget question. This is not the end of the world. But it is sadly indicative, I’m afraid, of the way some folks may, due to limited understanding of an issue, dominate a question of long-term significance using short-term political pressure. We had an opportunity to spend a tiny fraction of the overall town budget (paid for not only by individuals’ taxes but by business taxes) to achieve a result which would benefit Ipswich for years, decades, to come. We blew it.

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One thought on “Signs of the Times

  1. Rachel

    While I agree with your larger point, you needlessly denigrate the American South and Texas (which has a rather thriving economy). I chose to move to Ipswich from Dallas. A multitude of reasons, not least of which is the stifling tax and corruption culture of Massachusetts, is now prompting us to move. Perhaps back to Dallas! I never got to live in the Lakewood area, and I’m dying to. They have good signs there.

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