running words around
design education and visual communication
authored by chris m hughes

Manhattan Clearview

Friday, 3 December 2010

The first time I visited New York, I spent a fair portion of my time just photographing the street signs - surely the most iconic of their kind in the world.

As well as the famous names and their various literary, musical and cinema references, like MacDougal, Broadway, the Bowery and so on, the signs are great pieces of urban design - rectangles in green or black, often set at right angles to each other, echoing the city's grid layout - and the lettering is a bold, white, uppercase sans serif typeface.

They are definitive, clear and timeless, just like this set at a famous corner in Greenwich Village -

McDougal Bleecker

So it's sad to read that the Federal Highways Commission recently announced that all 250,000 of the city's street signs are to be replaced, at a cost of some $27million. The project won't be finished until 2018 and will see the uppercase lettering replaced by mixed upper and lowercase set in Clearview - a new sans serif font designed specifically for the task.

The bureaucrats argue that the switch will improve legibility. This will mean better safety for drivers, who identify the words more quickly in lowercase, and easier orientation for pedestrians, who'll be able to see the wording from farther away.

By their reckoning, it's a miracle anyone has managed to find their way around New York before, given that the uppercase signage has been in use since the early twentieth century. And if you have ever driven in Manhattan, you'll have spent enough time stuck in traffic to read any sign, even if it was set back-to-front in comic sans (assuming your first language is english).

Here's a comparison example -

Uppercase v lowercase

Judge for yourself, but Clearview definitely spoils the balance and gravitas of the original signs in all sorts of obvious ways.

This is a situation where a design classic is being tampered with for a valid reason, but in the wrong way. Visual communication is about problem solving, and in this case the solution would be to tweak the existing font into a more legible format by widening the kerning (the space between the letters). Or perhaps the Feds should just spend the $27m on improving traffic flow and tightening up the drivers test.

NYC to spend $27m - NY Post
Feds Change Signs - Transportation Nation
NY Signage Change - the Telegraph