No dumping thermoplastic in the wild by Matt Biddulph, Flickr

For years I’ve been observing graphic design in the wild. Wheat-pasted posters, neon signs, the hand-drawn logo on a passing stranger’s coffee cup. I prefer the gritty backdrop of the everyday—the street, the store, the city—to the clean environs and neat silhouettes found online.

In the wild, graphic design is alive.

Each installment of this ongoing series will feature one of these notable works, a surprising, engaging, or otherwise compelling piece of graphic design culled from daily life.

I first noticed them after dark. Standing in front of a taco truck in Highland Park, the faint outline of a crudely drawn fish stood out on the dimly lit sidewalk. Upon closer inspection, the fish was only bones, a spray-painted skeleton along with the stenciled words “NO DUMPING / THIS DRAINS TO OCEAN.” After the first discovery, I found them near storm drains everywhere: Silver Lake, Hollywood, Santa Monica. As a visitor to Los Angeles, I was already attuned to the omnipresent forces of sunlight and traffic, but this was something different.

Up the street from the Eames House in the Pacific Palisades, I noted a different variation: A smaller, square sign with a breaching dolphin instead of a finned vertebrate. The directive appeared in the same stencil lettering with one small omission “NO DUMPING / DRAINS TO OCEAN.”

The history of this campaign stretches back more than 20 years, and three iterations, to a time when L.A.’s beaches were frequently polluted and sometimes unusable. Back then it was common practice to pour paint, trash, or other hard-to-dispose chemicals down the storm drain in your neighborhood. Separate from the sewage system, storm drains in coastal areas flowed directly into the ocean (and still do); surfers and swimmers were getting sick, and marine life suffered. After an amendment to the federal Clean Water Act took effect in the early ’90s, stormwater runoff was designated a pollutant worthy of regulation, and cities were held accountable as dischargers. This was monumental.

The city of Los Angeles hired Heal the Bay, an environmental nonprofit focused on the health of Southern California’s coastal waters and watersheds, to help them comply with the regulations. Already at work on a pilot program to educate the public on the dangers of urban runoff, Heal the Bay reached out to advertising giant Chiat\Day (now TBWA\Chiat\Day) to create a design.

“It was a very, very big issue at the time,” remembers Tamara Thompson, the Chiat/Day account planner on the pro bono project. After conducting focus groups with L.A. residents, it was clear the main obstacle was simply a lack of understanding. “Regardless of affluence or education, people were just shocked,” she says. “What? Are you kidding me? This just goes right to the ocean? Why?”

Thompson contacted Kevin McCarthy, an art director and local surfer, whose strong connection to the water proved an asset. “When we got to exploring the design, there was this really clear sense for everyone that we couldn’t just say ‘don’t do it,’” Thompson says. “We needed to create a really strong emotional spark for people.”

For McCarthy, who also took on the job unpaid, form followed function. The idea to spray paint directly on the sidewalk was decided early on. Aerosol paint was inexpensive, and because community groups and city workers were already going drain to drain to clean out debris, the new campaign could be easily integrated into an existing program. His original design, two concentric circles with a half-dead fish in the center and stenciled lettering that read “NO DUMPING / THIS DRAINS TO OCEAN,” quickly communicated that sea life was dying. The focus groups revealed that healthy fish, or messages about protection weren’t enough to get people to care—at least not yet.

“This particular design had the quality of going from live to not live, and emphasized that your actions can cause destruction,” Thompson says. “THIS” in the stencil’s copy, though wordy, was added to connect a particular place—this grate, this spot—to the ocean. McCarthy’s skeletal design and the initial deep blue color was a subtle nod to Heal the Bay’s logo, a fish with visible bones.

Since the program began in 1992, it has spread throughout much of California, and even to inland states where similar designs are used near rivers, lakes, and streams. “There’s a joke with some of my friends that if I had a penny for every one of these, I could retire by now,” McCarthy says. But he’s quick to add that he’s immensely proud of the program, and that the knock-off designs don’t bother him. “As a designer, I’m quite alright with it because it’s for the common good.”

While the spray-painted stencils still proliferate, the city of L.A. has changed the design and application of the warnings twice. In 1995, plastic tiles affixed to the base of curbs, briefly replaced the original designs, many of which had eroded or degraded to the point of being unreadable. But the tiles were too easily knocked off by buses, and many ended up in the drains themselves. Which brings us back to the dolphin.

The variation I noticed in Santa Monica will be familiar to Angelenos as the most common “no dumping” typology. Now present on 35,000 drain basins across the city (at a cost of around $25 each), this version was designed by Oscar Amaro, graphics supervisor for LA Stormwater. Amaro, who also worked on the original campaign in 1992, felt it was time for a more sympathetic design. “Everybody loves dolphins,” Amaro says simply. And he’s right. The connection between our actions and the environment is far easier for people to make these days, and the public is much more focused on protecting the beauty that already exists.

Made of two thermoplastic layers (blue on the bottom, white on top), and applied with a propane torch, “THIS” is notably absent from the newest version. Highlighting the incremental awareness on the part of the public, it’s no longer necessary to explicitly state the obvious. More of a reminder than a warning, the dolphin looks friendly, even happy floating above the water. Installed by city contractors in the same manner as traffic markings, the cut-out white letters lose their shape when heated, so the stencil treatment remains functional, and ties back to the original design.   

Despite widespread efforts, urban runoff is still the largest source of pollution to Southern California’s coastal waters. James Alamillo, urban programs manager for Heal the Bay, argues that part of the problem is a lack of outreach. Signs can only do so much, and must be accompanied by community education, as Heal the Bay advocated from the very beginning. Then a tipping point can be reached, where everyone understands the systems at work. “We’re not there yet,”Alamillo cautions. “We still have quite a bit of work to do.”