Clinton Riggs probably never considered himself a “graphic designer.” Heck, the term probably hadn’t even been invented back in 1939 when he was creating his magnum opus. But I’ll bet you’ve seen his work. They’re triangular and red & white. In some parts of the world they have no verbiage, but around here most of them just say YEILD.
When Riggs first ventured into the world of traffic control systems and graphical designs he envisioned a device he called a “responsibility sign.” That would have probably never made it in this day and age, and fortunately the key element “yield” came along. The first signs said: “YIELD right of way” in black letters on a yellow background. In 1939 he tried to sell the idea to Tulsa’s municipal government to no avail. Ironically, interest from afar was enthusiastic about the idea. But it was still another ten years before the Yield sign really started rolling.
Finally, in 1951 Captain Riggs took it upon himself to put his sign to work. Back then the most dangerous intersection in Tulsa was 1st Street and Columbia Avenue. For some reason no stop sign had ever been installed, even though accidents were common. Riggs had the world’s first Yield sign made to his specification out of his own pocket. He promptly mounted a pair on poles and planted them at 1st and Columbia. Accidents immediately decreased.
Over time the Yield sign slowly became more common. There was some trepidation on the part of those that felt it was an unnecessary new sign. The thinking was– any intersection that merits slowing down needs to have a stop sign installed. Internationally acceptance was more rapid and letters poured in from around the world asking about design and implementation of the new sign. And then in the late Fifties came the Interstate Highway System.
Suddenly roadways all across the nation were being built with merge lanes and exit ramps. Even cities built predominantly on a gridwork pattern, like Tulsa, were dealing with curved intersections where traffic flowed together. Perpendicular intersections were one thing, but no one was going to suggest putting a stop sign on a superhighway cloverleaf. The Yield sign was immediately requisite.
I can remember seeing the distinctive original yellow signs as a child. In fact, I recall traveling to other cities and noticing unusual triangular Yield signs. It never occurred to me why there might be different styles of the same sign. Eventually triangular signs replaced all of the original keystone-shaped versions. Years later the Yield sign was “globalized” with a new coat of paint and now the yellow ones have all but vanished.
Riggs retired in 1970 and is best known in the Department as the commander of the police-training academy, a job he held for many years. The southwest precinct of the TPD is named in his honor. His widow, Vera Riggs, still has that original prototype sign, along with those letters from all over the world. An example also resides in the Smithsonian.
And to this day every officer of the Tulsa Police Department wears a small homage to this self-made graphic designer/traffic control engineer. If you look closely at their shoulder patch you can see a little bit of that very first black and yellow Yield sign.
This article was originally written for the Tulsa channel on About.com in June 2000.