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Exit ArchiveArchive for August 13th, 2007
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FHWA and Clearview

I have before bemoaned the change, currently in progress, from the original highway font to the new Clearview font. Seeing the new font in action in Austin during my last two trips there, I have to say… I do not like it any better. Yes, it’s very legible, but it’s still dull, dull, dull. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s “ugly,” but I’m very close. Some lobbying money from Friends for Fabulous Fonts could steer me to that conclusion.

The New York Times published a long article on Clearview and its creation. Perhaps it’s because this article was published in the Times Magazine section, or perhaps it’s because journalism is pretty much dead, but interesting as the article is, it suffers from many maladies of poor writing. Take, for instance, this:

Looking at a sign in Clearview after reading one in Highway Gothic is like putting on a new pair of reading glasses: there’s a sudden lightness, a noticeable crispness to the letters.

True, the Clearview’s letters are crisper, but so-called Highway Gothic is not illegible. It is not muddy. It is incredibly clear and wonderfully designed. Since all our highway signs in L.A. started being replaced a few years ago, I’ve been seeing if I ever find them hard to read. Almost never. I do have good eyesight—meaning good contact lenses—so perhaps I’m not a target demographic for clearer sign fontage. Which is not my overall point. My point is that looking from Highway Gothic to Clearview is nothing like putting on a new pair of reading glasses.

What started as a project to organize information for tourist routes in Oregon would soon turn into an all-consuming quest, and one that marked the first time in the nation’s history that anyone attempted to apply systematically the principles of graphic design to the American highway.

Anyone who’s paid attention to the signs on our highways knows that they were, in fact, carefully designed. Their colors, shapes, and placement are very specific. The statement above is mere popsicle writing.

The text that did appear on these early signs was largely hand-painted and all in uppercase, simply because no one could effectively draw lowercase letter forms by hand.

Preposterous. Assumptive writing at its best. “No one could effectively draw lowercase letterforms by hand”? Who made that up? Heck, I can make up stuff, too. For instance, did you know that the quality, tone, and content of most news articles are sloppy and sensationalistic simply because no one has the means to effectively research and confirm details and sources? It’s true!

Now how about mismatched points? Toward the beginning, the article mentions how the understanding of type has turned from an “esoteric pursuit” into one that marketing has made more front-and-center. “Fonts are image, and image is modern America,” an argument for how badly the font on our highway signs needs to be changed. However, later on, Highway Gothic is said to be exactly that kind of font to many people.

The quirky appeal of imperfection does give Highway Gothic its fans, who share highway lore and trade vintage road signs on the Internet. To highway enthusiasts like Richard Moeur, who runs a Web site devoted to traffic signs, the existing highway typeface has become evocative of the wonder of the open road.

So yes, we need to spend all this time and money on a new font in this era of marketing, a font that can improve legibility but also create a new, cohesive image for America’s highways! Forget that FWHA Series E is already that, and that Highway Gothic is being used by marketing campaigns willy-nilly these days. Why make reporting accurate when it can be fun? Oh, and re-read the first part of that quote: “The quirky appeal of imperfection.” How perfectly symbolic of this story’s propagandistic slant and “by golly, it’s swell” uselessness.

I completely agree that the proper use of fonts more important than ever today, thanks to the computer. Computers have made fonts more accessible for everyone, and so the general public is more aware of what fonts are. At the same time, I’d argue, fonts have never been more misused. Back in the days when FWHA Series E was created, there were people creating typefaces such as these who knew what they were doing. It was difficult work. Highway Gothic is not a product of haphazard creation or accidental need. Fonts were made and used by people who knew how to make and use them. Now, fonts are made and used by everyone. I need not explain the consequences.

I don’t mean to imply that Clearview has been made by morons. It has obviously been carefully designed, with much thought put into its every curve. I admire the goal to create a font that will be legible in any condition, night or day, wet or dry, in slow or fast passing. It’s not surprising, though, that one of Clearview’s creators says that he wanted to take the “goofiness” out of the Highway Gothic design. Clearview is the dull result; it is too dull to be something that will become romanticized as the new American Spirit of the Open Road.

“Highway Gothic conjures the awe of Interstate travel and the promise of midcentury futurism; Clearview’s aesthetic is decidedly more subdued.” That’s exactly the problem with Clearview, but not something the article realizes might be an issue. It’s so strange to have a propaganda piece written for a highway font! I wonder if someone paid someone off. Friends for Fabulous Fonts could pay me off to write an anti-Clearview article. Or they can just send me a check for this post. Hello? You guys out there?