Highway Signs and the ‘Corporate Identity of a Country’

Travel Blog  •  Michael Yessis  •  08.13.07 | 10:55 AM ET

imagePhoto by ksr8s, via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Of course we all want highway signs to be easy to read, and thanks to the efforts of Don Meeker and James Montalbano, two designers profiled in a terrific New York Times Magazine story, that may soon be the case throughout the United States. The duo developed a font called Clearview, which, writes Joshua Yaffa, “is poised to replace Highway Gothic, the standard that has been used on signs across the country for more than a half-century.” Clearview will allow drivers to read signs a few seconds earlier, particularly at night, which can make all the difference safety-wise. At the same time, the change of font will have an enormous effect on the image of the United States.

Yaffa writes:

“Type on the roadway is very much like the corporate identity of a country,” says Graham Clifford, a friend of Montalbano’s who runs his own branding and design firm in New York. Clifford, who is English, mentioned the ubiquity of British Transport, which has been used in his country since the late 1950s. In the decades since its adoption, it has appeared on T-shirts and in advertisements, much as Highway Gothic has come to infuse the American consciousness. Phil Baines, a London-based typographer, once called British Transport “the house style for Britain.” Other countries have their own style, too. Clifford told of a trip he took with his wife, driving from England through Wales, then crossing by ferry to Ireland and up to Northern Ireland. Many signs in and around Dublin were written in a quirky local script; the markers in Belfast, however, were uniformly British Transport. “The change in typeface lets you know you’re in a different place,” Clifford said.

It can also let you know you’re in a different time. In 1941, Hitler abandoned the ornate blackletter typeface that had been a text standard in Germany since the Gutenberg era. Party propaganda was then printed in a roman serif typeface, giving the Nazi regime a starkly modernist identity. “Typography is all about tone of voice,” Clifford says. “Do I shout at people? Do I whisper at people? Do I scream from the rooftops? Am I talking to a woman? To a man?”

Highway Gothic conjures the awe of Interstate travel and the promise of midcentury futurism; Clearview’s aesthetic is decidedly more subdued. “It’s like being a good umpire,” Pietrucha says, suggesting that one of Clearview’s largest triumphs will be how quietly it replaces Highway Gothic sign by sign in the coming years. “It will completely change the look of the American highway, but not so much that anyone will notice.”

Check for yourself. The New York Times has a slide show with looks at the old and new fonts.