Government backs off deployment of new police for road signs

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Last week, the US government made a big graphic design decision without much fanfare.

The Federal Roads Administration quietly withdrawn its endorsement of Clearview, the typeface that has appeared on road signs across the country for the past decade. In its place, the FHWA is bringing back Highway Gothic – a typeface that has remained unchanged for 60 years and of which Clearview was designed to address readability issues.

To understand why this is so serious, you have to go back to the 1950s. When the Eisenhower administration unveiled the interstate highway system, the government needed a standard typeface for its road signs. As graphic designer Don Meeker explained in a story About the design of the road signs, Highway Gothic was based on a printed typeface, enlarged to a giant size.

“What is amazing is that [Highway Gothic] lived for 58 years ”, Meeker tell us in 2011. “If computers were regulated like road signs, we would still live with vacuum tubes.

By the end of the 1980s, it was clear that Highway Gothic was in trouble. It was known for an effect known as the “halo”, in which bright reflections turned the letters into an unreadable white blur at night.

As the driver population aged and baby boomer eyesight deteriorated, traffic engineers viewed the Highway Gothic halo as a potentially deadly design problem requiring a typographic solution.

Meeker helped put the road signs right with Clearview. He toned down the tight internal spaces of lowercase letters like “a” and “e,” which in Highway Gothic tended to trap light and look like “o’s” at night. Clearview aimed to improve readability, and it did, according to research conducted at Penn State and Texas A&M.

Clearview made the signs easier to read at farther freeway speeds, without having to increase the size of the letters or the signs themselves. As of 2004, approximately 30 states have adopted the policy.

So why is the FHWA putting Clearview in the back view? According to CityLab, an FHWA spokesperson cited unpublished research that questions the readability of Clearview. But Meeker called this claim silly.

“Helen Keller can tell you from the grave that Clearview looks better,” Meeker told CityLab. He suspects that the about-face is personal. “It’s a burr on someone’s saddle,” he said, adding, “They don’t understand the design.”

Yet even if this new policy holds, you still have plenty of time to enjoy the glories of clearview – it will be decades before all signs bearing the new typeface are replaced. When that day comes, some lovers bulletin boards can begin to follow the last remaining examples of this once promising innovation.

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This story was first published by Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.


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