Wednesday, July 23, 2008

New Typeface for Highway Signs

Clearview is the name of the typeface that is poised to replace Highway Gothic, the standard that has been used on signs across the country for more than a half-century. Looking at a sign in Clearview after reading one in Highway Gothic is like putting on a new pair of reading glasses: the letters seem lighter and there is a noticeable crispness to them.

The Federal Highway Administration granted Clearview interim approval in 2004, meaning that individual states are free to begin using it in all their road signs. More than 20 states have already adopted the typeface, replacing existing signs one by one as old ones wear out. Some places have been quicker to make the switch — much of Route I-80 in western Pennsylvania is marked by signs in Clearview, as are the roads around Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport — but it will very likely take decades for the rest of the country to finish the roadside makeover. It is a slow, almost imperceptible process. But eventually the entire country could be looking at Clearview.

The typeface was developed by Don Meeker, an environmental graphic designer, and James Montalbano, a type designer. They set out to fix the problems with the old highway font, and their solution — more than a decade in development — may, according to the New York Times, end up changing more than just the view out a car window. Less than a generation ago, fonts were for the specialist, an esoteric pursuit, what Stanley Morison, the English typographer who helped create Times New Roman in the 1930s, called “a minor technicality of civilized life.” Now, as the idea of branding has claimed a central role in American life, so, too, has the importance and understanding of type. Fonts are image, and image is modern America.

The trick in highway signage is to design letters so carefully that they appear to be bigger and easier to read even though they are no wider than the original Highway Gothic so the words fit on the same size signs. One way to do this is to increase the "x heighth" (The "X heighth" of a lower case "h" is the same as an "n" because and "n" is an "h" without an "ascender".) Above left is a comparison of the old Highway Gothic (top); a version of the new Clearview that is 4.7% wider (middle); and another version that actually takes up less space than Highway Gothic while still being easier to read.(bottom). A good way to look for the difference is to observe the size of the openings (called "counters") inside letters like "O", upper case "R", and lower case "g", "a", "b", "c", "d", and "e". You can also see how the old Highway Gothic seems to bunch up in letters like "V" and "W".

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