THIS MAY BE the information age, but sometimes information alone isn't enough. Sometimes what people want is whimsy.

So when Utahns were invited recently to vote for their favorite Salt Lake City signs, they showed a decided preference for giant ice cream cones and murals and cardboard men whose bodies are shaped like carpet rolls.Urban signage is the theme of the 1995 Urban Design Awards, co-sponsored by the Salt Lake City Arts Council and the Deseret News. The awards, based on citizen nominations, honor the people and institutions that help make Salt Lake visually pleasing and user-friendly - a distinctive place whose urban landscape couldn't be easily mistaken for every other city in America.

This year's nominations are proof that signs are a vital part of that landscape, and are proof, too, that nostalgia sometimes has a way of making icons out of the darndest things.

Several people, for example, nominated the CarpeTowne sign - the three rolls of carpet named Joe, Lud and "question mark" (formerly Dan, Phil and Andy) that sway east and west above the Highland Drive store.

Although the Urban Design Award judges didn't pick the CarpeTowne sign for one of its awards, they did agree that good signs don't just convey information. "Signage is a graphic art form. To be good art it has to have elements like proper scale and serendipity," says Arts Council member Paul Heath.

Good signs, adds member Stephen Goldsmith, "balance our need for direction, the corporate need for advertising, and the broader community need for an uncluttered, responsible environment."

This year's winners are:

- Baci Trattoria: The playful, energetic Baci sign was created by artist Ted Nagata, who wanted to reflect an Italian design trend - the Memphis Movement - popular in the 1980s. "Good textures, color and scale; funky," said the judges about the logo, which adorns the building at 134 Pierpont and stands alone at the 200 South walkway leading to the restaurant.

- Wasatch Touring and Intermountain Guitar and Banjo: Murals and logos that cover the building at 100 South and 700 East bring color and adventure - kayakers, red rock canyons, a fiddler on a horse - to an otherwise lackluster intersection. "I wanted it to be a celebration of the activities and the products inside," says Park City artist James Kirkland, who painted the signs 12 years ago. Kirkland is amazed that in all that time, even though teenagers pass his murals every day on the way to and from school, no one has ever marred the paintings.

- Eclectic at South Temple: The secondhand store features a new, hand-painted sign every month. "Gifts of Extinction," said one, a self-effacing comparison with its neighbor across the street, whose motto is "Gifts of Distinction." "Fir Neat," read a sign at Christmas. The signs are painted (backwards, from inside the store) by Catherine Saner but are created by all the store's employees, says owner Kristin Hopfenbeck. "Has character," said the judges.

- Trolley Square Tower: Built so Salt Lake's trolley barn could have a ready supply of water in case of fire, the 97-foot-high water tower was converted into a sign when the site was turned into a shopping center in the early 1970s. "Historic landmark with vehicular drive-by scale," said the judges.

- Zions Bank clock: Ticking away Salt Lakers' minutes for over a century, the historic clock at the corner of 100 South and Main Street was brought to the valley by ox and wagon and was placed in front of the Eagle Emporium in the 1870s. In those days it was powered by a waterwheel, with water diverted from City Creek. To its credit, Zions Bank has kept the clock, even as time marches on. The judges call the old clock a "historic landmark on a pedestrian scale."