An Artist Imagines the Future of Public Signs

Fernando Barbella's art anticipates a world in which the emerging technologies of tomorrow are more fully integrated in our everyday lives.

As the Five Man Electrical Band so wisely observed many years ago: Signs are everywhere. "Do this, don't do that - can't you read the sign," they sang in 1971. It's the Man keeping us down, you see.

The Argentine creative director Fernando Barbella has a different take on the concept - and the future - of public signage.

For several years now, Barbella has been maintaining a funny and provocative blog called "Signs From The Near Future," in which blends images from everyday life with lateral thinking on the future of various technologies.

What kinds of signs might we see 10, 20, or 50 years from now?

"I'm not trying to play the 'futurologist' sort of role or even trying to predict anything," Barbella said from his offices in London, where he now lives and works. "The idea is to provoke some thinking about the rise of all these emerging technologies that are aiming to improve our daily lives, but making us more dependent on them at the same time."

Barbella said he often finds a primary image - a storefront or subway tunnel, for example - while browsing random websites or Reddit pages.

"Plastic or reconstructive surgery became mainstream over the years, but at the beginning it was controversial and a bit hard to digest for people," he said. "So, looking ahead in time, how might this whole trend of embedding technology in our bodies look like?"

Barbella said the amount of time he spends on an images depends the complexity of the retouching process.

"I'm not a Photoshop super expert, but what I can do it works very well for the expectations I do have for the project," he said. "Better done than perfect is one of my personal mantras."

Barbella said he often has ambivalent feelings toward emerging technology – like virtual reality, for instance.

"Transporting ourselves to alternative worlds through VR environments sounds promising, and if you have the chance to go through a high-end experience, you'll understand all the possibilities this opens," Barbella said. "At the same time, what is going to happen when or if people spend more time in that reality than this one?"

In one image, Barbella depicts a woman walking through a subway terminal or some sort of underground tunnel. To her left are individually tailored messages displayed on screens. "Don't forget your appointment at 1:30pm today. Recommended: West End Line," one reads. Another reads, "Get a thicker jacket for this evening."

Barbella said the image is an example of how he draws from his own professional experience in interactive advertising.

"Where's the limit between the private sphere and the public?" he said. "How much of our lives are we keen on sharing in order to get something from brands, products and services?"

In another image, Barbella muses upon the future of digital prosthetics. In it an individual wears an exocortex motorcycle helmet, which might connect computer sensors or memory directly to the wearer's brain.

"An exocortex is a hypothetical concept for now, but who knows?" Barbella said. "Maybe it will not sound that scary if it just looks like a very stylized helmet."

Barbella said an image depicting a neighborhood lunar transportation center is probably the most plausible of his speculations on the future.

"If you hear what guys like Elon Musk and others are doing, it seems that visiting the Moon is going to be something we regular mortals will have access to in the near future," he said.

You can check out more of Barbella's images on his blog or in his recently published Signs from the Near Future coffee-table book.