Friday, February 8, 2008

The Signs of The American Highway

Current highway signs are designed specifically to help drivers navigate safely and easily through town but the notion of creating a sign based on its legibility was not so popular in the late 19th century. Thus, the posters from the Industrial Revolution represented the cultural identity of America and less of a corporate one. This redesign of a basic highway sign concludes what defines North America from other countries by eliminating the element of practicality while still adhering to what is recognizable.

Not many people know or care to know about the typefaces used on the highway but there are many laws limiting how signs are made and there are concerned designers attempting to perfect what is seen from the road. Highway Gothic has been the standardized typeface used on U.S roads since the mid-20th century but recently environmental graphic designer, Ron Meeker, has tediously designed Clearview. Clearview has been implemented in many states already because Meeker’s extensive studies were enough to convince the Federal Highway Administration that it was a better alternative to Highway Gothic. His testing included analyzing the problems with Highway Gothic, developing and tweaking a new typeface and, lastly, shining lights on each to compare their luminosities. This seemingly pointless study actually revealed the poor readability of Highway Gothic in a nighttime setting. Meeker received help from James Montalbano who said, “ “The fundamental flaw of Highway Gothic is that the counter shapes are too tiny, like the inside of an “o.” ” (YAFFA) Although the typography of highway signs are highly dependent on what is readable, they are still distinguishable across the globe.  Designer, Graham Clifford, “has mentioned the ubiquity of British transport” and compares its “cultural stamp” in England to Dublin’s expressive, “quirky local script.” (YAFFA) Many designers support these comments on the implications of a country’s transportation signs and if the theory holds true, Clearview will freshen American roads.

The idea that a sign can distinguish a region from the next is attractive yet modern design is so limited to readability and function that the cultural perception is a diluted. With all logic aside, the most “American” typographic signs, arguably, are those from the Industrial Revolution. The printing technology was conveniently developed along with modes of transportation, harboring an advertising frenzy of posters and signs. The railway advertisements would be considered an eyesore today yet, at that time, the public had not seen such flexibility with type. Wood type became very popular for it’s ability to create highly detailed letters and forms. Most posters had straight, and/or curved, lines of varying typefaces piled onto one another in different sizes. The message was dynamic and dominating as most lines were often in all caps and a mixture of serif and san serif typefaces were used side by side with ease. Typographers developed more extravagant typefaces with heavy serifs, stretching out into motifs. Somewhere in the center of all this text, a utopian image would squeeze its way to the front amongst the unreasonable forest of letters. Though the posters of 19th century America were obnoxious and dense, the skill shown was proof of America’s growth and technology.

The functional highway signs of today and the visually active train posters of the past can be connected to communicate the distinct spirit of what America is. To communicate this concept, green and white is used to create a recognizable frame to a modern highway sign. Furthermore, the text is expanded and the style of railway typography is applied. The three different typefaces used are Mesquite, designed by Joy Redick in 1990 Playbill, by Robert Harling in the 30’s, and Rockwell, designed in 1934 by Monotype collaborators, because they all are representations of early American typography. The layout is directly inspired by the scrolling text and odd treatment of punctuation from the past. Ultimately, the highway sign aims to create a conversation about the clues, roadway signs in this case, that express the distinctive culture of America. 

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