A New Kind of Street Sign for New York City

British artist Killy Kilford wants to make New Yorkers happier with inspirational messages in unexpected places.

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David Winograd

This photo shows one of Kilford's happy street signs outside of the Tribeca Grand Hotel in downtown Manhattan.

On a bright and chilly November morning, Killy Kilford, 37, stands on a street corner in downtown Manhattan, watching bundled-up pedestrians scurry across an intersection to the tune of honking cars and rumbling trucks. Most walk quickly, their eyes glued on the crosswalk ahead of them.

As a woman reaches his side of the street, Kilford stops her politely and, before she can hurry away (as many New Yorkers do when approached by strangers), asks, “What do you think ofthat there street sign?”

She looks up and smiles. “I like it. It’s really nice,” she says. The sign, which at first glance looks like any other city street sign, bears an unexpected message: “Listen to your heart.”

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A few weeks earlier, Kilford and a group of nearly 50 volunteers installed 200 “happy street signs” from a fictional Department of Well Being in high-traffic areas around New York City. Kilford designed the signs to look like official street signs but each features a motivational message. After posting the signs, the group began surveying pedestrians for their reactions.

The project marks a departure from the type of work Kilford has done in the past. The British artist made a name for himself painting on stage with acclaimed bands like the Black Eyed Peas and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, but he’s especially excited about happy signs because of the potential he sees to positively impact a broader audience.

The goal is to brighten people’s days through “little moments of joy,” Kilford explains. “In our daily lives, we are running around crazy, looking at our mobile phones, going to meetings, stuff like that … New York is the greatest city in the world – but I think sometimes people just need a little nudge here and there to remind them that they are great, they can have a great day and that they are loved. That’s what the message is.”

Kilford chose street signs as a mechanism to convey these positive messages because they are “the most recognizable piece of art that we are surrounded by every single day.”

But on a more fundamental level, signs are ways governments communicate with citizens, and today, much of that communication is prohibitive: “No Parking.” “No Standing.” “No Honking.” Kilford believes changing the tone of that conversation to include some positive reinforcement could have a subtle but measurable impact. “If you see sign that says something different or unexpected, for example ‘honk less, love more,’ that will trigger a reaction, ideally a smile,” he explains. “If we can make people smile, then holistically, over time, that will start to increase…their level of happiness.”

Kilford isn’t just going off a whim. A former government consultant, Kilford’s reasoning is also informed by work he did for Britain’s Office of National Statistics, where he helped measure well being in different regions of the country. “If you look at the things that impact happiness in urban environments, the aesthetics of a place is an important factor,” he says.

So far, Kilford is very encouraged by the feedback he’s received. Not everyone likes the idea, of course. One man he questioned, apparently unaware that the Dept. of Well Being isn’t a real city agency, called the signs a “waste of taxpayer money.” But Kilford says he and his volunteers have surveyed more than 600 pedestrians to date, and that the vast majority were overwhelmingly supportive.

What’s more, the project is generating buzz on social networks, even catching the attention of celebrities like Perez Hilton:

Kilford acknowledges he installed the signs without permission from the City of New York and could have faced legal repercussions for violating city ordinances. But legal or not, he hopes the signs will start a discussion about what governments can and should do to promote the happiness of their citizens.

As that conversation unfolds, Kilford plans to transform the Dept. of Well Being into a non-profit organization that will promote art-focused well-being projects in New York City and other cities around the world.

Kilford hopes New York City’s incoming mayor Bill de Blasio will embrace the idea. But he’s also seeking support from other public personalities, and one in particular: “I think [Mayor Mike] Bloomberg has done an incredible job over the last 13 years for New York.  In fact, the Dept. of Well Being is recruiting for a key leadership position in February… and since Mike is moving on from his current role, perhaps he should…come in for an interview.”