Note: The photo reference numbers throughout this article correlate with the relevant image’s position in the embedded slideshow.
By Dan Bergsagel
It’s hard not to notice the abundance of signs when you enter the Coop. Like any grocery store, the Coop needs signs to function. Signs tell members what items cost, what they can find in an aisle, and where to stand on line.
Yet, as the Coop is run on member labor and structured around shared values, the signage at the Coop must share so much more information: There are greetings plastered on entranceways; strict access rules displayed overhead; stern warnings affixed to heavy machinery; and informative hints stuck next to self-serve devices. These signs can be brusque or decorative, scrawled or carefully designed. They accumulate in places expected and visible or unexpected and obscure. They convey vital instructions or indeed no instructions at all.
There’s so much signage that instead of members being fully informed, there’s a risk that little of the intended information is absorbed.
As a new member, I found this rich tapestry of signage fascinating. I wanted to know who makes the signs, who puts them up and who is allowed to take them down. Are all signs made equal? I also found the signs totally overwhelming. I couldn’t tell which signs were meant for a member-shopper versus as a member-worker. I wondered whether faded, tatty signs were old and superseded by new information or still up-to-date. There’s so much signage that instead of members being fully informed, there’s a risk that little of the intended information is absorbed. I felt that we could use a taxonomy to help us parse signs at the Coop.
First, we need to understand some of the history of signage at the Coop. We can then categorize the signs by purpose and cross-reference that to their location and medium of manufacture. When combined, this can provide a framework for understanding which signs are most relevant to whom and at what time.
To understand all things signage, I spoke with Membership Coordinator Phi Lee Lam after I found her applying a new Opening Hours sticker on the main entrance doors one Saturday morning. Phi Lee inherited the Coop’s signage liaison position after General Coordinator Jess Robinson retired in 2021. The Signage Committee organically disbanded during the pandemic, around that same time, due to a number of factors, including the retirement of some core members and the dwindling need in recent years to have a committee devoted to signs.
Walking through the Coop, it’s clear that the Signage Committee’s style guide hasn’t been universally followed.
To standardize the Coop’s signs, the Signage Committee had previously established a style guide setting out the colors and typeface that should be used for all permanent Coop signage. However, walking through the Coop, it’s clear that the style guide hasn’t been universally followed. Permanent signs tend to adhere to the style guide but hand-drawn illustrations and chalkboard signs tend to go off-piste. Ad hoc signs added by receiving coordinators or member-workers to help with specific tasks also demonstrate a live-and-let-live attitude to signage.
The Coop uses signs to convey information for all sorts of purposes. There are regular signs that shoppers will be familiar with from other grocery stores, such as those to help member-shoppers navigate the building by displaying the contents of an aisle (image 1/30) or to direct member-shoppers to the appropriate cashier line (image 2/30).
But beyond this basic store signage are those specific to the Coop and its hyper-involved membership: signs that assume detailed knowledge of where items were previously located, such as a notice on the aisle and shelf reassignment of recently moved goods ranging from smoothies to water filters (image 3/30); signs that give detailed food information, such as an apple decoder describing the characteristics of the different varieties on sale (image 4/30); signs that provide technical explanations on how the food is grown and sourced, such as this one on the background of integrated pest-management for apples (image 5/30); and signs that tell shoppers how to operate machinery that isn’t always accessible in other grocery stores, such as the step-by-step guide for using the Coop’s coffee grinders (image 6/30).
In addition to functional signs, there are also signs demonstrating members’ passions and motivations.
In addition to signs catering to member-shoppers, there is a range of signage to assist with member-workers’ tasks during shifts. These include signs for how to restock the paper in the Coop’s orange pricing guns (image 7/30); signs explaining specific processes, like how to cut and rewrap cheese into smaller parcels depending on the shape of the original larger cheese (image 8/30); signs providing guidance on where to put things and how to navigate the warren of back-of-house areas, like this sign summarizing which items are stored in the backyard (image 9/30); and crucial safety information, like what not to do in the basement electrical cabinets (image 10/30). Perhaps similar signs exist in all grocery stores, but we usually don’t see them as customers.
In addition to functional signs, there are also signs demonstrating members’ passions and motivations. These are signs promoting causes that the membership believe in, such as Black Lives Matter or the Human Rights advocating Fair Food Label (image 11/30); signs bearing admonishments on environmental or physical behavior, such as requests to avoid using plastic bags when doing one’s shopping (image 12/30); or, if one must use plastic bags, to avoid licking one’s fingers when separating them from each other (image 13/30); or comedic signs conveying helpful reminders about how to protect yourself against the coronavirus using acrostics based on Staten Island hip hop collectives (image 14/30); or signs with little apparent meaning at all, but which bring unique character to the basement cooler rooms (image 15/30); or those drawing parallels between the Coop’s food-conveying infrastructure and the larger civil engineering infrastructure of the world (image 16/30). These are not signs you would expect to see at Whole Foods.
All these different types of signs—basic grocery store signage, Coop-specific food information, instructions for member-workers and passion projects—are visible on the shopping floor where member-shoppers, member-workers and Coop staff all interact. As you delve into the less accessible depths of the Coop, adherence to the Coop Sign Style Guide diminishes and informal signage reigns.
The second floor, which primarily houses the membership and staff offices, also features a unique set of signs: the sign archives.
Entry to the basement is signaled by a series of strict, insistent and repetitive reminders at the top of the stairs imploring member-shoppers to stay out (image 17/30)! Equally repetitive signs can be found in the recycling zone next to the elevator doors on the second floor, where it is made very clear that one should only recycle soda cans (image 18/30).
The second floor, which primarily houses the membership and staff offices, also features a unique set of signs: the sign archives. This includes signs that have been key to the Coop’s visual identity, such as a former painted wooden storefront sign (image 19/30) and a 2001 edition of the iconic Coop carrot (image 20/30). This floor also has a rare documented reminder of the Coop’s early mission of “Good Food at Low Prices for Working Members through Cooperation since 1973” in a frame (image 21/30) and significant signs from recent pandemic history, such as one that announced the return of member labor after the forced COVID-19 hiatus (image 22/30).
Surprisingly, the level of attention that must be paid to a sign at the Coop seems to be both inversely proportional to how hard it was to make and install and its adherence to the Coop Sign Style Guide. For instance, the most permanent sign is the classic neon flag sign on Union Street (image 23/30), closely followed by the permanent (and on-brand) Coop Mission Statement (image 24/30). There are then long-term signs such as the stickers with reminders of rules about members-only access and dogs (image 25/30) and the food information on printed and laminated paper that is tacked on the sides of cabinets (image 26/30). Nearly all of these permanent signs are more than likely ignored in the day-to-day hustle and bustle of the Coop.
The most crucial information of all is typically conveyed in the least considered and least permanent way: by Sharpie.
More transient and less on-brand signs, on the other hand, are ignored at your peril: hand-painted signs specify new product types and campaigns, such as the health and beauty department’s plastic-free initiative (image 27/30) and intricate colorful chalkboards remind the membership about how to get involved with current affairs at the Coop (image 28/30).
The most crucial information of all is typically conveyed in the least considered way: by Sharpie. Exciting food updates and special sales are scribbled with frantic excitement on cardboard, such as these childlike exclamations about beef suet (image 29/30) and essential machinery safety warnings, such as those reminding member-workers to turn off dangerous, fast-moving equipment before opening doors, are given the most temporary format of all: Sharpie on masking tape (image 30/30).
Can we combine information from a sign’s location and medium to better understand its purpose and target audience? Below is a proposed taxonomy to help confused Coop members. Yet, all good taxonomies should change and evolve as a field of study is explored. If you do not see your favorite type of sign, or disagree with the classification, please write to share your thoughts. If you are curious about what you see, then it’s a sign!
Dan Bergsagel is a structural engineer from London. He likes to talk about the unexpected things hiding in plain sight.