Transportation Markings: Overview



Transportation-Markings (T-M) is an integrative and holistic study of all forms of safety aids in the realm of transportation. T-M can be defined as any device (external to a mode of transportation) that aids a means of transportation giving information, providing regulations, or expressing warnings. “Safety aids” provides an alternative term though less specific. Transport- Marks and Way Marks are additional possible terms. T-M views safety aids as possessing a shared commonality transcending the boundaries of transportation modes. Traditionally safety aids are associated with a mode of transportation far more than with other other T-M forms. Railway signals, for example, are attached to trains and tracks, not to marine aids to navigation, traffic control devices, or aero navigation aids. To be sure, it is reasonable to view these aids in the traditional perspective. From the perspective of a railway engineer or other mode-specific specialist it may well seem odd to view safety aids in any perspective other than that of the mode.

Yet an exclusively mode-specific approach to safety aids can have shortcomings. T-M forms are ultimately a form of communication and even of human communication. T-M can be said to be less a component of transportation science than of human communication: the emission of symbols with agreed-upon meanings aid the movement of people and goods. Because they are part of communication they share a common basis and execution, no matter their form or location. In all fairness, it must be admitted that the traditional mode viewpoint remains a vital and necessary dimension of safety aids. However, the integrative approach can complement the traditional approach by seeing T-M forms as first a component of communication and closely related to all other such forms and only then as mode-related.

T-M offers a perspective on safety aids through an integrated system of signs (signs in a semiotic sense) forming a single discipline. Within that discipline various forms of energy and symbolic behavior are manifested, yet the substructure of common purpose remains intact. T-M does not so much deny the traditional mode-related nature of specific systems of safety aids as offer an additional perspective out of which spring safety aids for a given mode.

T-M can be regarded as a technical subject, yet an integrative and holistic approach may find fruitful insights. A major element of this approach is that of semiotics. There are many definitions of semiotics including the simple one of Pierre Guiraud (1975): “Semiology [or semiotics] is the science which studies sign systems.” Guiraud gives substantial treatment to the various kinds of codes. Codes (or culture-codes) are defined by A.A. Berger (1984) as “(1) directives in our culture which we do not recognize (generally) but (2) which have a highly articulated structure and which are very specific.” Guiraud divides codes into several categories of which “logical codes” is especially vital for T-M. Logical codes, in turn, can be further subdivided; subdivisions of “practical codes: signals and programs” includes T-M. This category
“coordinate[s] action by means of injunctions, instructions, notices or warnings.”

Another important perspective for T-M is that of the communication model (Nöth 1990). Communication models focus on the material signal element (the physical aspect) while semiotics is more concerned with signs (the mental aspect). An important communication model is that of Shannon & Weaver (1949) who outline a linear communication chain in which a signal moves from a transmitter through a channel to the receiver.

Nearly as important as semiotics and communications for T-M is the study of taxonomy. Dana’s System of Mineralology (C. Palache, ed., 1944) has served as a foundation for a general classification of T-M forms. The classification lists and numbers T-M phenomena and also illustrates the commonality and interconnections of T-M safety aids. A variety of library classifications also indicate shared elements among the T-M forms.

A final perspective is that of the holon, developed and described by Arthur Koestler (1978 and 1981). Holons manifest a double nature: holons are simultaneously semi-independent wholes and an integrated part of larger wholes. Each holon contains other holons and is, in turn, contained in other holons. Koestler describes holons as a vast hierarch with each holon as “Janus-faced.” “The face turned upward, toward the higher levels, is that of a dependent part; the face turned downward, towards its own constituent, is that of a whole of remarkable sufficiency.” T-M very much resembles a holarchy with each T-M (attached to a mode) making up a holon while con-taining other sub-forms or additionals holons. Each mode-related T-M holon is a component of the holon of T-M in its totality, and that totality is a part of communication and semiotic forms.

The technical element is not lacking in this integrative approach to safety aids. However, the technical is interwoven with social science and communication concepts rather than having an independent place in the studies. This results in a discipline of T-M phenomena that encompasses the full spectrum of phenomena and thereby leads to a single study.

Since many of the monographs admittedly take up a mode-specific approach (Parts C/D, E, F, G) it is difficult to consider the whole subject in a single treatise. That approach is, however, kept within at least an informal semiotic framework and it is firmly grounded in the taxonomy. The foundations monograph (Part A, 2008) offers a primary on energy forms, as well as an exposition of semiotic, taxonomic and design factors. The US study (Part B, 1992) takes up the full spectrum of T-M, though confined to one nation. The general classification (Part H, 2003) provides a perspective that draws together all of the elements of T-M. The database (Part Ii-ii-iii- iv-v, 1997-2010) provides succinct descriptions of the individual markings. It too, however, remains anchored in the overall concept.


Berger, Arthur A. 1984. Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics.
New York: Longman.
Guiraud, Pierre. 1975. Semiology. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Jean, Georges. 1998. Signs, Symbols and Ciphers. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Koestler, Arthur. 1981. Bricks to Babel: A Selection from 50 Years of His Writings, Chosen & With a New Commentary by the Author. New York: Random House, 1978. Janus: A Summing Up. New York: Random House.
Nöth, Winfried. 1990. Handbook of Semiotics. Bloomington (IN): Indiana University Press.
Palache, Charles, ed. 1944. The System of Mineralology of J.D. Dana & E.S. Dana. New York: Wiley & Sons.

Additional Titles:

Kim, Kyong Liong. 1996. Caged in Our Own Signs: A Book About Semiotics. Norwood (NJ): Ablex Publishing Corp.
Leeds-Hurwitz, Wendy. 1993. Semiotics & Communication: Signs, Codes, Culture.
Hillsdale (NJ): Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
Sebeok, Thomas. 1975. The Semiotic Web: A Chronicle of Prejudices. Bulletin of Literary Semiotics. No. 2, December.

This article is an adaption of an essay appearing in Proceedings: Chartered Institute of Transport UK 1997.

Brother Brian Clearman, OSB, is a Benedictine Monk of Mount Angel Abbey (1964). He holds a B.S. in social science (economics, history, geography, political science) from Portland State University (then of college status), 1964, and a M.S. in Interdisciplinary Studies: Teaching (sociology and economics) from the University of Oregon, 1975. He is currently the monastery archivist.

“We communicate & navigate with a code of logos, symbols, emblems, and signs.”

Susan Yelavich, Design for Life: Our Daily Lives, the Spaces we Shape, and the ways we Communicate, as seen Through the Collections of Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. New York: Cooper-Hewitt, 1997.