The US government’s decision to remove Clearview police from road signs has really frustrated its designers – Quartz



After 12 years of deliberation, the US government has finally taken action on a controversial subject: fonts.

In the January 25 issue of the government publication Federal Register, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has announced that it will withdraw permission to use Clearview as a typeface for signage. The edict applies to every 50,000 miles of highway and four million miles of highway in America. Each state in the Union must now use an older, officially approved font, colloquially known as “Highway Gothic”.

Clearview was warmly received when it was introduced in 2004. More than 25 states in the United States currently use police on traffic signs. But FHWA spokesperson Doug Hecox says Quartz’s popularity is likely “due to the fact that older, worn panels have been replaced with new, clean panels using brighter materials.” The agency worked with sociologists, chemists, photospectrometers and various experts to develop road sign solutions, especially for older drivers. The FHWA believes that the sign’s surface (or retroreflective sheeting material) has the greatest impact on readability, not the typeface.

Choosing a font for a road sign is very different from choosing a font for a brochure.

Quoting a 2006 assessment, the FHWA claims that using Clearview actually compromised the readability of signs with black letters on white or yellow fields (like speed limit or roadside warning signs). “For these and other reasons, the FHWA believes that there is no practical benefit to the public in continuing to research this alternative policy,” Hecox said.

The decision will take effect on February 23. However, states that have already adopted Clearview will not be required to remove their existing signs.

Coup de grace for conceiving activism?

The announcement is a blow to one of the most famous examples of design activism in the United States. Clearview was the first digital typeface to be ‘acquired’ and celebrated by the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, calling it “a fine example of design as a form of social activism”.

Design activism refers to designers using their tools, thinking, and techniques to solve burgeoning civic issues. Often initiated without a commission or formal client, this type of activism consists of proposing new arrangements to improve paper ballots or prototyping best prescription drug vials.

Don Meeker

If this sounds trivial to you, remember that choosing a font for a road sign is very different from choosing a font for a brochure.

A road sign should be readable from a distance, should be read in a fraction of a second, and should also function in all kinds of weather and light conditions. Designing for the aging eye is also of particular concern to FHWA: New data published by the agency in December 2015 shows a record spike in the number of drivers over 50, many over 80.

An FHWA mandate calls for the optimization of public signs for these 214 million licensed elderly drivers, the fastest growing demographic today. To this end, the FHWA recommended large print road signs in 2003. This would have increased the size of the Highway Gothic letters by 20% and resulted in much larger road signs.

“There is nothing more aggressive and intimidating… than road signs. “

But by then, graphic designer Donald Meeker had already wondered how to improve road signs in his home state of Oregon. His attention first turned to the typographic quirks of Hightway Gothic while he was working on a road sign project there in 1989.

Prior to designing Clearview, Meeker ran a thriving design practice referral systems for national parks, schools and public projects. It was inspired to take action by the bewildering array of road numbers, existing signs, and city names that clutter America’s highways, Meeker explained at the Society for Experiential Graphic Design conference last year. “There is nothing more aggressive and intimidating … than road signs,” he said, calling the official US signaling system “dysfunctional, frenetic, savage and out of control.”

In 2004, Meeker, together with graphic designer Chris O’Hara and typographer James Montalbano, came up with Clearview as a solution.

Meeker, O’Hara and Montalbano redesigned the letters in Clearview specifically to counter poor road conditions. They eliminated “light traps” or tiny notches in the joints of the letters and cleaned up the letter shapes to reduce the halo effect at night, due to the reflective surface of the sign. They also increased the negative space in the letters “a” and “e”, which tend to close at a distance. These small typographical refinements were made to improve the readability of letters without increasing the size of the fonts.

In a statement to Quartz, Meeker expressed his sadness over the decision to abandon Clearview, but said he would continue to work on improving public signage in the United States. “It’s disappointing because we are quite sure that we are saving lives with longer reaction times for older drivers and all drivers,” Meeker writes. “But it’s not in our hands.”

It’s fair to say that this was never approached as a systematic design effort and designers are not part of the equation, as it was when Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert redesigned road signs. in 1964 in the United Kingdom.

The road signs are the one thing that has not changed fundamentally since the early 1960s, when there was an upgrade to accommodate the “new” Eisenhower Interstate defense freeway system. This system is only a tiny fraction of all the roads of the nations, but it is he who runs the system. Road signs are also the biggest government manifestation that most citizens interact with on a daily basis and this pervasive aggression doesn’t have to be so intimidating.

It’s not just about the police

Unlike the in-house-designed Highway Gothic (officially called “FHWA Standard Alphabets”) which is free to use, Meeker licenses Clearview to state agencies and individual customers. According to the FHWA, having to pay to use the font, even for are quite reasonable– was a problem for many states. “The federal government promotes articles that are in the public domain as much as possible,” explains Hecox, who confirms that the agency has never attempted to buy back the universal license from Meeker.

Although the The FHWA Announcement notes that “the FHWA does not intend to further consider, develop or support an alternate letter style,” Hecox told Quartz that the agency will always welcome new proposals regarding policies or all kinds of design-driven solutions to keep roads safer.


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