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This Poster Is a Test. It Is Only a Test.

A tribute to San Francisco's Tuesday noon siren – designed by Brian Scott, with contributions from Heimo Schmidt, Nick Sowers, and yours truly


Every Tuesday at noon in San Francisco, California, a siren rings out, after which a voice provides some modicum of comfort by explaining that the siren was a test, only a test. The siren is part of the city’s Outdoor Public Warning System. Brian Scott of Boon Design decided to treat the siren as a symbol for the city — that is, what R. Murray Schafer would have called a “soundmark,” or the sonic equivalent of a landmark — when he responded recently to a call for posters by AIGA SF, the local branch of the professional association for design. The poster project, titled AIGA InsideOutSF, explains itself as follows: “A curated exhibition and silent auction of original posters by some of the most influential San Francisco Bay Area and international creatives, revealing their personal impressions of San Francisco.”

Brian put together a small crew for his poster, which appears up top. The photography, with purposeful echoes of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s sublime horizons, is by Heimo Schmidt. Additional key reference points include Vija Celmins’ graphite drawings of waves and Michael Snow’s 1967 film Wavelength. The waveform, shown at a 90 degree angle from its usual horizontal mode, cascades down the center of the image. The waveform is portrayed as a series of crosses intended to connect the wave to the idea of a map — to align the waveform with 113 sirens distributed around San Francisco (see the map below). This waveform visualization was accomplished by Nick Sowers. As for my role, I weighed in with ideas, writing, and editing. The text on the poster shows the announcement in the three languages it is heard in: primarily English, but also Cantonese and Spanish. The layering is intended to get at the distortion inherent in many of the city’s speakers, and at the overlaying and echo effect of adjacent speakers.

OPWS 08-13 Official_wLanguages_letter

And because the web image of the finished poster doesn’t do justice to the impact of Brian’s art, here is a detail:


More from Brian Scott and Boon Design at More from Heimo Schmidt at More from Nick Sowers at

Our siren poster, by the the way, isn’t the only sonic symbol of San Francisco to be drawn from in the AIGA project. Nor is it even the only one to emphasize a public address system. Below is the wonderful poster submitted to AIGA by Jeremy Matthews and Brett Wickens of the San Francisco”“based Ammunition Group. It shows the bullhorn of famed local activist and politician Harvey Milk.


More on the AIGA InsideOutSF poster project at The InsideOut SF Fall Gala, to be held on November 12, 2013, will raise funds for the AIGA (“towards scholarships, educational programming and community events” per the documentation) in an auction of the posters.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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