The infamous book How to Lie with Maps initially offered a light-hearted attempt to explore how maps can entice, mislead, inflame, and generally propagandize, often without necessarily depicting anything geographically untruthfully. Juxtapositions (not always to scale), labels, color choice, and infographics can all endow an editorial skew on what seems like objective spatial representation. And then, of course, there’s a careful, clever omission of key details. It all can get the job done. Mark Monmonier released his first edition of his book in 1991, at the dawn of the Age of Internet, before everyone had instant access to a map of the world on their computer (or in their pocket), and before such cartographic tools as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) had become widespread. These innovations probably prompted his latest 2018 Third Edition of How to Lie.
I used the word “probably” in the previous sentence because I don’t know for certain; I haven’t read his well-loved tome (yet), and so I’m speculating on some of the devices I listed above. But I have enough understanding of advertising, propagandizing, and semantic tools for persuasion that I my guess isn’t entirely uninformed. And much of it is common sense, at least when it comes to color choice. They’re powerful at skewing perception. And that’s why cartographers use colors so shrewdly, often assisting other professions—sociology, meteorology, statistics—to convey specialized data in a manner that leaves a desired impression. A growing number of people have pointed out how, in recent years, the meteorological maps have deployed a loud scarlet to indicate soaring temperatures amidst climate change.
At this point it’s time to pivot, because maps were really little more than the starting gun to get this article sprinting down the track. Colors are the key. It’s obvious even to young children. Warm colors (red, orange, yellow) tend to convey energy, passion, anger, and violence. Cool colors (green, blue, purple) convey serenity, positivity, calm, lushness. Despite its prevalence as a symbol of love and vitality, red generally evokes negativity, especially when in contrast with green. Red is danger; red means stop; red is negative numbers. Green is safe; green is go; green is the color of money. I pontificated on this a few years ago, when I noticed how some of the less affluent suburbs seemed to offer an unusually high quotient of storefront signs with red letters. Red letter signage is the norm, for dry cleaners, beauty shops, day care, liquor stores, you name it. These areas, where national chains are less common and mom-and-pops the norm, often depend almost exclusively on red letters for the signs above storefronts in strip malls, or even on the primary roadside sign that announces all the businesses within that particular shopping center. The red-letter signs are so pervasive that it almost creates an inverse association: if a motorist didn’t know already, he/she could tell when entering a lower-income part of town because of all those red signs. Even at night, the color choice is noticeable: every strip mall in this part of town exudes a red glow.
More recently, I’ve noticed at least one inverse example. Green means go, or yes, or positive, or prosperity. Does that explain the situation at this particular strip mall?
The Lee Harrison Shopping Center, the source of these photos, may not be the absolute highest-income zip code in the Washington DC metropolitan area (the “DMV”). But it’s doing very, very well. It’s squarely within Arlington County, a place I’ve covered routinely—one of the wealthiest and most thickly populated counties in the country. The county is small, it’s completely built out, and it has household incomes almost double the national median. This particular shopping center isn’t particularly eye-catching, nor is it very big: about 120,000 square feet. Its one anchor tenant is a Harris Teeter supermarket.
Even if they patronize it regularly, most people in the area probably don’t know the name. (And, given the recent name change to one of the intersecting streets, it’s possible it will soon become the Langston Harrison Shopping Center.) It has no real distinguishing features…except for all that green.
It stands out. At night, it’s an eerie illuminated path of almost uninterrupted jade.
Truth be told, those strip malls in the country’s lower income suburban districts—with nothing but red signage—cast a similarly sinister pall at night. Color uniformity is probably the magic touch. Lots of red, lots of green, lots of blue—anything outside of white lights is noticeable. But, as I observed in my previous article, the red backlit lettering is the most common color choice for such signage. In districts with lots of low-value strip malls, red dominates.
We’ve all seen strip malls like this. Green, on the other hand, is atypical; though I’m sure other places like Lee Harrison Shopping Center exist, I can’t recall seeing them. Not only is green the opposite of red on the conventional color wheel, and all the other implicit semiotic considerations made red/green polarizing hues. In most respects, cool green conveys lower energy and less agitation compared to warm red. But does green evoke affluence? The original designers of Lee Harrison Shopping Center might have been banking on such a notion (pun intended). And by the estimates of property manager A.J. Dwoskin and Associates, the immediate surroundings are extremely well off: an average household income of just over $200,000 within the mile radius surrounding that Harris Teeter. A few places in neighboring Fairfax or Loudoun counties might be wealthier…but not many.
Other quirks about this green fixation are subtler. Also unlike most of the low-rent strip malls where red signage dominates, Lee Harrison has its share of nationally known chains that adopt the same signage:
Many of these businesses aren’t heavy hitters: Chesapeake Bagel Bakery, Elevation Burger, Wild Birds Unlimited never occupy a large footprint. But they’ve all been around for at least 25 years, have locations in multiple states, and have aspirations toward continued growth. They’re chains. Meanwhile, Hair Cuttery, H&R Block, and Verizon are ubiquitous. Big names. All of the aforementioned have suppressed their normal logo and color scheme to adopt to the prevailing green color choice at Lee Harrison. Tiny variation in fonts exists—but nowhere near as much as one would expect for such varied brands. They have suppressed their logos to abide by this uniformity. It’s almost like it’s a prerequisite to leasing a spot at this mall, in the midst of high income density.
It’s not just the lighting. The motif continues among the hanging signage along the central arcade that links all the storefront entrances. The local brands on this stretch of corridor—a nail salon, a pizzeria, and a taqueria—all use a uniform deep green in an identically bland all-caps font for the signs that hang from the ceiling.
Yet, amidst these clearly prescribed standards are a few inexplicable exceptions. In a far corner outparcel, the emergent chain Duck Donuts gets to use its traditional logo for its lighting, which includes—can you guess?—deep red letters. I didn’t capture the signage as smartly as I probably should have back when I visited on a dark winter night, but it’s there in the far left with the red glow—distinctive amidst the dominant green.
Duck Donuts isn’t the only one. In the same corner of the strip mall, two other exceptions to the rule emerge.
Peter Chang is a chalet that currently has seven locations, mostly scattered throughout eastern Virginia. Still probably fits the earnings threshold of a small business, yet it gets exempt from the green along with Duck Donuts, while mega-corps like Verizon must play by the rules. And then, to its left, is a Virginia ABC location—the Alcoholic Beverage Control authority (yes, Virginia is one of those states). The shopping center management has exempted the state-run liquor distributor from the prevailing color choice.
So in the grand scheme of things, Lee Harrison offers a night-time profile of mostly green lighting, with a little red thrown in. Almost a Christmas effect. The color choice nowhere near interesting enough to justify these nearly 1,700 words, but it does offer hints of a revelatory sociological signaling. Red-letter signs are the most common, the default color for businesses that don’t want to spend a lot of money. (They must be the cheapest to manufacture,) As a result, strip malls with lots of red implicitly convey a low-rent, mom-and-pop character. I have no idea if green is the most expensive color. Probably not—it’s almost as common as red when it comes to neon—but if red is the thesis, green is a likely antithesis. As far as Lee Harrison Shopping Center goes, it makes an otherwise humdrum strip mall radiate like the Emerald City at night.
It seems to be working for the property management company. It’s a successful strip mall in an era when strip malls are a tired retail typology. Having all that money nearby helps, but it’s still a risk that such a locale won’t attract tenants willing to submit to the brand. I’ll never know how Duck Donuts and Peter Chang got to break the color choice rules, but Lee Harrison doesn’t seem to struggle to fill its parking lot or to keep a steady and stable array of tenants, both national and locally sourced. In this increasingly cashless society, maybe green really will continue to remain the color of money. It’s pretty clear this place isn’t operating in the red.