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Signifying intimate needs in public space; an analysis of toilet signs


The material for this paper is toilet signs in public spaces, collected from various contexts, from a number of countries and across a time span of several years. This material is of interest because it represents semiotic resources signifying within a public space how very intimate and personal, albeit universal, human needs can be met. Toilet signs have a very specific ideational function of labeling a room for the individual users in need, and placed on a door they represent a threshold between the public and the private. At the same time the signs are part of public spaces where the surrounding activity going on may vary from education (e.g. universities) to social and leisurely activities (e.g. restaurants), and they are part of interior decorating that may express style and identity (Fairclough 2003; van Leeuwen 2005). The material will be categorized according to three main dimensions: a) Coding orientation (Kress and van Leeuwen 2006, p. 165), where the scale from abstract to naturalistic will be an important dimension. b) Style. In this dimension the main question will be how the signs express, or play with, the institutional image of the public space they are embedded in, and how they invite the visitors to relate to this framing. This dimension may carry traces of the value system of the hosting organization as well as aesthetic preferences. c) Social constructs. The fact that most public toilets sort their visitors according to gender (as opposed to private bathrooms) points to this as an interesting material for analyzing social constructs of gender, and in some cases also of age.

The analysis will aim at answering the following research question: How do toilet signs bear witness of signifying practices in relation to values, aesthetic preferences and social constructs within public spaces?


Fairclough, Norman 2003: Analyzing Discourse. London and New York: Routledge

Kress, Gunther and Theo van Leeuwen 2006: Reading Images. The Grammar of Visual Design. London and New York: Routledge

Van Leeuwen, Theo 2005: Introducing Social Semiotics. London and New York: Routledge