An (Un)Clearview: Our Brief, Messy History of Street Signage
The story of fonts and typefaces in street signage is one you could start as long ago as ancient Rome. The earliest road signs were milestones, stone columns that marked the miles throughout the Roman Empire, counting the distance to Rome. Later, in the Middle Ages, multidirectional signs at intersections evolved, to point the direction to multiple cities and towns. And if you don’t already know the story of Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s rigorous transformation of the UK’s chaotic road signs from 1957-1967—generally known by type design nerds around the world as “one of the most ambitious information design projects ever undertaken in Britain”—then you almost certainly know the font they used to do it (Transport—or New Transport if you’re working in digital).
But the story we’d like to tell here begins eighty-three years ago today, in New York City. On July 27, 1943, the poet and humorist Gelett Burgess wrote a letter to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York City with a complaint—in verse, of course—about the fonts used on the hand-painted street signs around the city.
Why is it he who paints the signs
On New York’s numbered streets combines
Such Threes and Sixes, Eights and Nines?
For, at a distance, when it’s late,
It’s hard to differentiate
Between a Six, Nine, Three and Eight.
They look so much alike they mix
Us up: we feel like lunatics
Who cannot tell a Nine from Six.
Burgess concludes on a pleading note:
Oh, Mr. Mayor, be kind! Be wise
Our street signs please do modernize
With numbers we can recognize!
LaGuardia didn’t get to be one of the greatest mayors in American history by ignoring this sort of thing. Not to be outdone, he wrote back with a poem of his own, thanking Burgess for his letter. It’s “a real delight/ When query comes, like yours, in phrase/ Polite,” his poem begins. He goes on to address the problem at hand. “Best not, piecemeal, change signs of tin,” he thinks.
A whole new set is what we want,
And meantime, praying on our knees
Our genial government to grant
“A post-war project!” we will cry
And when a fleet of signs appears
The City will look younger by
With his last line—“The City will look younger by/ Eleven years”—LaGuardia was referencing a book by Burgess, Look Eleven Years Younger (1937)—but if his reference was cheeky, his words were not untrue. The New York City of 1943 (which you can visit via the wonderful Kodachrome photographs of Charles Cushman, in the archives of Indiana University) seemed a much older place than the New York City that did, eventually, begin to replace its signage.
In 1964—thirteen years after Gelett Burgess died—NYC began replacing all its street signage with large, easier-to-read, vinyl signs. For about twenty years, these signs were color-coded depending on what borough they were in. Street signs in Manhattan and Staten Island were yellow with black lettering; signs in the Bronx were blue with white lettering; Queens was blue on white; and Brooklyn was black and white. The type was an all-caps, sans serif situation, with superscript for the “ST”s, “AVE”s, and “RD”s in the top right corners.
As LaGuardia implied, though, the story of changing street signs in America is largely a story of state versus Federal government. It wasn’t long before the Feds passed a regulation ruling that all street signage be green, with reflective white lettering. “The color-coded regime came to a gradual end as the signs were grandfathered out.”
Joshua Yaffa, who chronicled the history of road signage wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 2007: “Until the 1920s, when the development of die-cut technology allowed for the shaping and cutting of thin metal alloy, signs were often idiosyncratic, with layouts and typefaces varying by city and region. But as the popularity and accessibility of long-distance road travel increased, so, too, did the need for coherent nationwide standards. Federally approved fonts first appeared in the 1935 edition of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the bible of federal road and highway standards that dictates the size, shape and placement of road signs. …In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced his goal of an expanded Interstate System, and highway engineers worked quickly to fashion a rough alphabet by rounding off the square edges of the block lettering created during die-cut sign making.” The result? Highway Gothic.
In 2004, citing a study that showed it was more difficult to read signs in all caps, the Federal government issued an order for a new font to be used on highway signs, and for all uppercase traffic signs to be changed to sentence case. In 2010, it extended that order to all US cities. “Those extra milliseconds spent staring away from the road have been shown to increase the likelihood of accidents, particularly among older drivers,” read one article. The government commissioned Meeker and Associates to design a new font for the redesign: Clearview. Around 30 states adopted the font—and other countries followed the US’ lead, including Indonesia, Canada, and elsewhere.
On a municipal level, the shift to Clearview was met with a mixed reception. In Toronto, which started rolling out new “blue and white extruded aluminum local and arterial street signs” in Clearview in 2007, the loss of that city’s former “iconic acorn-style street sign” was much lamented. Meanwhile, in New York City—arguably the grumpiest city in the world—the total cost of replacing all street signs was $110 per sign, or $27.6 million overall. As one might expect, New Yorkers were not pleased with the change.
This year, however, the Federal Highway Administration changed course, and reverted from Clearview to Highway Gothic. Just twelve years after its much-celebrated rollout, the short, sweet reign of Clearview was over—taking the designers at Meeker and Associates by unfortunate surprise. It’s not quite clear what this will mean for the fonts of New York City in the next two years. Still, many signs have already been changed, and the increase in legibility is undeniable. 73 years to the day after Mr. Burgess wrote his poem to Mayor LaGuardia, we’d like to think he, at least, would be pleased by the results.