US highways embroiled in typography battle

By Ezequiel Bruni Posted Mar. 22, 2016 Reading time: 1 minute

We live in a world where every startup and its dog promises to change your life through design. The most important works of design, however, are the ones that many of us barely even think about. In this case, I’m talking about highway signs.

I don’t drive, but I used to be on the road a lot when I was a kid in Mexico. I practiced my Spanish pronunciation by reading off every sign out loud, much to my siblings’ dismay.

Beyond educating young children, highway signs are also responsible for helping drivers figure out where they want to go, and preventing accidents. In the United States of America, this has prompted an argument over typefaces.

As you might imagine, the importance of typography takes on a whole new meaning when people are driving down a highway in heavy metal machines. Drivers sometimes only have a split second to make decisions; if they can read a sign from farther away, they have an extra split second or two to react.


Highway Gothic (left), and Clearview (right).

The face causing all the drama is called Clearview, and it was designed by Donald Meeker. He started designing it in 1991 after deciding that he wasn’t happy with highway signs in Oregon. He worked with researchers at Penn State University to design a new face, hoping to increase the readability of signage.

Early studies indicated that he had been successful. In 2004, the Highway Administration gave his work their provisional endorsement. Many highway signs were changed or replaced.

However, further studies failed to support the conclusions that led the Highway Administration to endorse Clearview. In some cases, it was found to actualy reduce the readability of signage. Others posited that the initial increase in visibility had more top do with what the signs were made of, rather than the lettering.

The Highway Administration has since rescinded their endorsement, though they are not requiring the new signs to be replaced yet again. There just won’t be any new signs featuring Clearview.

Clearview’s proponents are disappointed to say the least, and have made their objections known. Naturally, with human lives in the balance, the argument is intense, for a debate about typefaces… as it should be.