It’s night, you’re driving home. Darkness fills the road ahead of you. You’re not from this area and you’re looking for a sign with a familiar indication. Finally, you find it. Your headlights are dazzling the letters that become all the same and you can’t distinguish the information. You take the wrong road. You keep driving. It may seem like a classic thriller scene, but in reality, it’s a simple case of bad signage. Because in this case, the use of the correct typeface could have decreased the letters’ blurring effect due to the glare and you wouldn’t have taken the wrong road.
Signage is one of the fields where typography shows its most analytical and practical aspect, where the choice of the correct character is based on simple but extremely important principles. Firstly, it must have an excellent legibility of single letters, so linear sans typefaces of humanistic nature, such as Frutiger, are well suited for this use.
These typefaces have open counterforms, which prevent the letter from “closing” when looked at quickly or in poor lighting conditions. On the other hand, in a grotesque typeface like Helvetica, lowercase letters c – e – o, can appear the same under the above conditions, precisely due to the closed counterforms.
Legibility also goes through the specific forms of individual letters. In particular, typefaces suitable for signage are those that are able to correctly distinguish all letters. Some typefaces like Futura, given their clean and geometric design, have some letters (and numbers) that look very similar, and in case of quick reading could be confused.
The readability of words and texts composed with these characters is also essential. Fundamental concepts such as spacing between individual letters come into play, which ensures the legibility of the message at different angles and at speed.
Speed, a key concept when addressing a signage project. All these parameters are essential when the speed of the subject reading is at its maximum and therefore the reading time of the message is at its minimum. By reducing it, these rules can be less stringent and the choice of a typeface can be more open. Let’s therefore take a look at different examples of typefaces applied to signage projects, starting with those where the subject reads the message at maximum speed, then moving on to examples at medium speed, and finally with projects at minimum speed.
n this context, the best case to examine is certainly road signage, that is all the signs we find on roads and especially on highways. In this case, we are talking about typographical characters specially designed for this scenario, that is very high speeds and sometimes unfavorable reading conditions such as darkness and rain.
The classic example is that of American highway signs, where the famous green signs display the information set in Highway Gothic.
Designed by Ted Forbes for FHWA (Federal Highway Administration), Highway Gothic is a family of 6 fonts, named “A”, “B”, “C”, “D”, “E”, “F”, where “A” is the narrowest and “F” the widest. It can be noticed right away how in this case the previously mentioned rules are respected, especially regarding the generous spacing between one letter and another. However, this character has a rather sharp-edged nature of the letters, and the internal counterforms of the letters are very small (especially in the lowercase letters “a” and “e”), which compromises the individual legibility (legibility). For this reason, FHWA recently commissioned the design of a new character that would solve these issues.
Clearview is a linear character designed on a purely humanistic basis, with generous open counterforms, large lowercase letters compared to uppercase (x-height), soft curved strokes, and ample spacing between letters. It seems like the perfect character to replace the more angular predecessor, but something gets in the way in the process. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the replacement process is interrupted and now both characters appear on the American highway signs.
The visual recognizability of Highway Gothic is undeniable and for this reason it has also been a source of inspiration for type designers. Interstate, a typeface designed by Tobias Frere-Jones, is a reinterpretation of Highway Gothic. Its allure linked to speed prompted Lamborghini to choose it as their corporate typeface.
Returning to the initial topic, in old continent, the design line for the signage of highways is opened by the United Kingdom around the beginning of the 60s, with the introduction of the Transport typeface. Designed in two weights, Medium and Heavy, this typeface has generous counterforms and abundant spacing. This design of the letters, in addition to making the character very recognizable, also makes it readable in terms of legibility and readability. Variations of this typeface will be designed and used by other countries.
One of the Countries that uses a variant of the Transport typeface is Italy, which, for road and highway signage, starting in the 80s, creates a slightly bolder version. The name of this typeface is Alfabeto Normale and it is used in combination with a secondary character, Alfabeto Stretto, specifically designed from the Normale to respond to the needs of writing longer and more complex information.
In Germany, on the other hand, the typeface for road signage is the famous DIN 1451, in the three widths Engschrift (condensed), Mittelschrift (normal) and Breitschrift (extended). It is classified as a “realistic” sans serif because its forms, while being essential and almost geometric, are absolutely legible and well distinguished. Not surprisingly, it is the typeface of the German Institute for Standardization (Deutsches Institut für Normung), from whose acronym the name DIN comes from.
The clean and essential forms of this typeface have elevated it to a level of notoriety that its use has not been confined to road signage alone. It has been used for many different types of projects, especially thanks to the numerous restyling that has taken place over the years. The most famous is certainly FF DIN, from 1995, by Albert-Jan Pool. This typeface, in the following years, thanks also to many other type designers, has become a super family containing an infinity of variations, among which a rounded version, a slab, a stencil, up to the present day, with variable versions.
These were some examples of “high-speed” signage projects, where the typefaces chosen for this use must comply with the legibility rules listed above.
Next month we will analyze cases where the reading speed decreases, increasing the possibilities of choice and use of different typefaces.