Reading the Signs by Maria Van Lieshout

When my son Max was about a year old, before he could walk or talk, he would point to STOP signs and DO NOT ENTER signs, bounce up and down in his stroller and spout his baby gibberish.

Noe Street

At first I thought it was a coincidence but when he did this again and again, I realized the kid had a thing for public signage. This was not a crazy notion, since I also have a fascination with signage.

I was born and grew up in Holland, which has sprouted some of the best graphic and industrial designers in the world, but its road signs cannot hold a neon bulb to American roadside signage, which is just about the most striking in the world.


Whether it’s neon diner signs, enamel gas station signs, the iconic octagon that tells us we need to STOP or the Route 66 sign, they communicate in an elegant yet unmistakable manner. They are like a true American cowgirl who swings her strong legs over her horse and tells to us to move aside as she gallops by.

Strong and playful. Clear and not to be messed with. They are Americana.

But they are more than that. They are icons. Beacons. In our rapidly changing world they remain the same. We can rely on them for that.

Life Gueard

I know I get a little carried away when I talk about public signage, but is it surprising then that my little dude would have the same strong reaction to public signage as I do? These things tend to run in families, yes?


At least that was what I told myself until I did some research and found that all babies and toddlers have a strong reaction to simple, graphic shapes with high contrast and primary colors.

What my research also taught me is that most road signage we see around us has been designed by a group of AIGA graphic artists led by the famous Seymour Chwast. The “symbol signs series” even received the Presidential Award for Design Excellence in the eighties! So on every street corner in America, one can find award-winning works of art on display.


I guess babies just have a much better eye for design than many of us adults do. Or perhaps Max was just making noise. Either way, I am happy his noise-making led me to create Backseat A-B-See and Flight 1-2-3. It’s been a great journey.

Maria was born in Holland and grew up in a small town outside of Amsterdam called Oegstgeest. After finishing high school in Holland, she graduated from The George Washington University with a BFA in Visual Communications, and worked for The Coca-Cola Company in Holland and the US.

After she won the green card lottery (for real!), she left her job as Creative Director for Coke to write and draw for kids full-time. Her latest book is Flight 1-2-3

Maria lives in a creaky 100-year old yellow Victorian in San-Francisco with her husband Peter and their son Max Pelle.

This is what Maria believes.

This is how to pronounce Maria’s name.

You can find Maria online at and on Twitter as @Msvanlieshout.