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March 10, 2005

Why are road signs so hard to read?


Phil Patton, who writes on things design-related for the New York Times, did an interesting story about why it is that street and highway signs seem to have been designed by a guy in a studio sitting quietly sipping coffee, not even beginning to consider the fact that the person who most needs to be able to read his handiwork is tired, anxious, driving at night, lost and going 65 miles an hour on a crowded interstate.

It's the typeface, dummy.

A team of researchers has now created a new typeface called ClearView to try and change things for us hapless tourists of the tarmac.

Did you like that?

Up top this post are James Montalbano (left) and Donald Meeker, the leaders of the ClearView design team, with their handiwork and the old typeface.

Can you tell which is which? (The answer's at the end of this post - you knew I was a tease, but I'm not mean...)

Here's the January 21 Times story about the effort to make things more legible for road warriors.

    Road Signs of the Times

    If drivers on Pennsylvania highways can see where they're going a little more clearly these days, they might thank the town of Bergaults.

    Except it doesn't exist.

    This was one of a number of imaginary place names tested by highway safety engineers and sign designers in their attempt to develop more legible road signs for America's aging population.

    Most drivers read road signs without noticing much about them.

    They speak with the mute force of officialdom.

    Road signs are taken for granted, and their grammar and vocabulary are so familiar and unchanging that they appear timeless.

    But road signs do, in fact, change — slowly and subtly — according to the rules embodied in a volume known as the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices or M.U.T.C.D. (Amateur road buffs instinctively want to call it the "MUTT-sid," but traffic professionals pronounce each letter.)

    The manual, revised periodically since its beginnings in 1935, now fills more than 500 virtual pages online.

    Changes in the manual have reflected changes in society, according to Gene Hawkins of the Texas Transportation Department, a historian of the regulations.

    World War II brought blackout instructions; the 1950's, signs for fallout shelters and escape routes.

    Today's new entries reflect America's changing demographics.

    More than a decade ago, a Federal Highway Administration study predicted that by 2005, 20 percent of American drivers would be over 65, creating a major safety problem.

    Age tends to diminish night vision, especially the ability to distinguish contrast, and older drivers are vulnerable to what engineers call "overglow" or "halation," when letters lighted by headlights blur together.

    The government's recommendation: Make the type on signs as much as 20 percent larger.

    But simply increasing the height of letters would mean much larger signs — 40 to 50 percent larger, with a resulting increase in cost as well as visual clutter.

    But a team of researchers led by Donald Meeker, a sign designer in Larchmont, N.Y., and James Montalbano, a type designer in Brooklyn, offered a different approach.

    They urged replacing the familiar letters of the Federal Highway Administration Standard Alphabets for Traffic Control Devices with new ones designed to accommodate older drivers.

    Devised by Mr. Meeker and Mr. Montalbano and researched by scientists at Penn State and Texas A&M, the new typeface is called Clearview, and in the world of sign engineers it is monumental.

    "It is the biggest change in the last 30 years of traffic control devices," said Art Breneman, who recently retired as the chief of traffic engineering and operations at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

    In 1988, Mr. Meeker was hired by the State of Oregon to create new signs to guide motorists to recreation areas.

    He was frustrated by the clutter of the roadside and the lack of clarity in existing signs.

    To help, he searched out Mr. Montalbano, and the two men started researching typefaces, comparing American sign type with other faces like the German DIN (for Deutsche Industrie Norm), which goes back to autobahn signs from 1936, and British Transport, a 1964 typeface used on motorway signs.

    The Federal Highway Administration's current typeface dates back to 1949 and came from the tradition of handmade signs, Mr. Montalbano said.

    The letters "had never really been tested," he said, and "they had origins in stencils and paintbrushes."

    Mr. Meeker and Mr. Montalbano made subtle changes, opening up the interiors of the letters, making the descenders on letters like "g" and "y" sharper and redrawing all the letters to make them thinner.

    Their aim was a simple but clear typeface.

    Federal highway officials were less than enthusiastic, they said, but they tested their new alphabet on test tracks at the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute at Penn State, and at the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M.

    "You can't do it in a lab," Mr. Meeker said.

    That's where the fictional Bergaults came in.

    Its three vowels (they tend to "fill in" under bright lights, making them indistinguishable); its troublesome descender on the "g"; and its "l" and "t," which can be mistaken for "i" or "1," all pose a challenge for many drivers.

    After the first tests, Mr. Montalbano made some final refinements, changing the height-to-width ratio of the letters and making the lowercase letters larger.

    Then, in April 2002, the designers tested the typeface again on the Pennsylvania track.

    The improvement over the current typeface was striking, they said.

    Or as Mr. Meeker put it: From 500 feet away, the current sign typeface "was already breaking up, but at 750 feet, the Clearview was still sharp."

    The researchers were surprised.

    "Everybody was stunned at how much better it performed," Mr. Montalbano said.

    "People's jaws dropped open."

    Last September, after some 22 months of effort, Clearview's proponents succeeded in persuading Ernest Huckaby, who oversees the traffic manual, and others at the Federal Highway Administration to grant interim approval for the new typeface.

    Drivers on Interstates 80 and 380 in Pennsylvania can already see examples of the new signs.

    Clearview was shown to provide as much as a 20 percent improvement over standard highway signs in legibility and recognition.

    That translates to as much as two seconds of additional reaction time.

    And though that might not seem like much, "two seconds multiplied by millions of drivers is a huge deal," Mr. Meeker said.

The new ClearView typeface is on the bottom in the picture leading this post,


and to the left in the graphic just above.

March 10, 2005 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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"not even beginning to consider the fact that the person who most needs to be able to read his handiwork is tired, anxious, driving at night, lost and going 65 miles an hour on a crowded interstate."

Gee, if someone is tired, lost, anxious, driving at night and going 65 mph on a crowded interstate, maybe they shouldn't be on the road. Pull off at an exit and find out where you are. Certainly the typeface isn't going to help you in this situation.

Personally, I hate clearview, it's an ugly font and it's a waste of money to fix a problem that doesn't exist. "Change for the sake of change." It also changes something which is uniquely American and makes it "just like everyone else."

Posted by: Bob | Jul 19, 2009 6:29:03 PM

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