The Semiotics of Lockdown Signage

This blog’s title is grander than this blog could possibly be. As a blogger, my linguist’s hat is being worn slightly askew as I write this – I’m sparing you, dear reader, a heady mix of semiotics and multimodal analysis that a more academically competitive linguist might offer. This is just a small sharing of the signage I’ve noticed in recent weeks as David and I have covered every corner and every walking path in Ely, usually with shopping bags in tow in order to distinguish the outing from our daily exercise outing of running/jogging.

While many of us are communicating with the world outside our homes via social media, Zoom, Skype and phone calls, others have taken to their window panes. The rainbow campaign to involve children in a productive and positive way during their confinement at home has grown into an art from for some and a means of protest for others of all ages.

This one is more specific than most, referring to our local hospital, Addenbrookes. The images of stethoscopes and plasters etc are emoji-like.


Sticking with a rainbow palette, the heart symbol, perhaps overused in our culture, sends the message.

Saying thank you to strangers who are not present in front of us is an interesting act in itself. But that is essentially what we’re doing. The intended recipient – the NHS worker – is likely not to see the sign, ever. The intended audience then are the passers-by, our neighbours, our fellow town residents – who else could it possibly be given the restrictions of the lockdown? Despite the limited audience in this public discourse, at least with window panes, one is less likely to be trolled by a stranger or feel obliged to answer or click ‘like’ to any comments.


The use of semiotic resources of colour and shape along with recognisable texts of our times, phrased as imperatives (stay safe, stay at home etc.), communicate emotions more than orders.  On some streets, the rows of townhouses with children’s rainbows create a wallpaper effect, turning houses inside out.

This window presents a mini-narrative, suggesting before (grey clouds and letters) and after (rainbow colours).
The text is not just a thank you, but a socio-political protest cheekily written in the rainbow colours.

I feel I have to say something about the signage of businesses around our little town. Most are the rather prosaic black ink on white paper, usually type print, occasionally handwritten, saying simply ‘Coronavirus – Closed until further notice.’ One of our local pubs  added political commentary, well wishes and indirect advertising into the mix:


I close, as these walks often do, with a trip to the supermarket and the signage on the ground of the carparks. These signs that have forced our behaviours to change will likely be one of the more poignant memories I’ll have when I look back on this time.


Stay safe, everyone.