Cautionary messages force the receiver to go somewhere or
do something to avoid dangerous consequences.
This is an old but insightful joke: Two dimwitted (or
maybe just stoned) hunters were walking through the
woods when they found a sign that read, “Bear Left.”
So they went home!
Analyzing the joke seriously for a moment, one could
argue that the sign cautioned them not to hunt a dangerous
bear—and since she left anyway, they acceded and saved
their miserable hides. But, as the joke actually indicates,
they stupidly misread the sign and departed. Apologies
for killing the joke through overanalysis, but this tale
provides us with an object lesson, of sorts.
Bear with me. Directional signs are not routinely
cautionary. But cautionary signs sometimes indicate
directions, as in “Danger, don’t go there.” Cautionary
messages force the receiver to go somewhere or do
something to avoid dangerous consequences. The design
of caution is essential to safety.
One could argue, however, that advocate and caution
are two sides of the same coin. To caution is indeed to
demand action, which implies advocacy, which means
a forceful message. But cautionary graphic design is
differently nuanced. Advocacy is support, whereas caution
The language of caution also requires different idioms
depending on the message, but always a similar forceful
tone. In advocacy the “soft sell” is possible. Not so with
cautionary missives. Barbara Kruger’s “Don’t Force It”
(page 106), which is ambiguous enough to have multiple
implications, must be forceful. Her “All Violence Is the
Illustration of a Pathetic Stereotype” (page 105) will stop the
viewer through the violent use of her Futura typography.
To caution often means to shock.
There are many ways of cautioning and many things
to caution about. “STOP AIDS” (page 109) is a simple