The Road to Clarity: Developing new type for national signage

The New York Times posted a great multimedia piece explaining the development of the Clearview typeface (right), comparing it to the old Highway Gothic (left).

The Sunday New Tork Times offers a deep background piece on the evolution and use of the typeface Clearview and it’s developers, Don Meeker, an environmental graphic designer, and James Montalbano, a type designer.

“What I saw was Clearview, the typeface that is poised to replace Highway Gothic, the standard that has been used on signs across the country for more than a half-century. 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.”

“The Federal Highway Administration granted Clearview interim approval in 2004, meaning that individual states are free to begin using it in all their road signs. More than 20 states have already adopted the typeface, replacing existing signs one by one as old ones wear out. Some places have been quicker to make the switch — much of Route I-80 in western Pennsylvania is marked by signs in Clearview, as are the roads around Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport — but it will very likely take decades for the rest of the country to finish the roadside makeover. It is a slow, almost imperceptible process. But eventually the entire country could be looking at Clearview.”

One highway engineer on the project recounted: “They were always playing around, wondering how we could optimize it. We had something we called Clearview, but was there a Clearer-view? Or a Clear-est view?”

“Type on the roadway is very much like the corporate identity of a country,” says Graham Clifford, a friend of Montalbano’s who runs his own branding and design firm in New York. Clifford, who is English, mentioned the ubiquity of British Transport, which has been used in his country since the late 1950s. In the decades since its adoption, it has appeared on T-shirts and in advertisements, much as Highway Gothic has come to infuse the American consciousness. Phil Baines, a London-based typographer, once called British Transport “the house style for Britain.” Other countries have their own style, too. Clifford told of a trip he took with his wife, driving from England through Wales, then crossing by ferry to Ireland and up to Northern Ireland. Many signs in and around Dublin were written in a quirky local script; the markers in Belfast, however, were uniformly British Transport. “The change in typeface lets you know you’re in a different place,” Clifford said.

But Clearview is not intended to be used only on roadsigns. It’s spread to 20+ states’ roadways already, but it’s already breaking into other uses:

Clearview, then, had succeeded in its mission: It made signs easier to read from a distance and reduced the distracting nighttime blur of halation. But its most visible debut came not on the highway but on the oversize billboards of Times Square. On New Year’s Day 2006, AT&T revealed its redesigned brand image. Clearview was featured in headlines, billboards and advertising copy, as well as on huge banners plastered around Midtown Manhattan.

The company wanted to project “a more welcoming and transparent image,” says Wendy Clark, a senior vice president in charge of advertising at AT&T. For more than a decade, the company had been using Gill Sans, a leaden, staid typeface from the 1920s. Market research showed that many consumers identified the old AT&T with attributes like “monolithic” and “bureaucratic” — an image problem it hoped to fix, in part, with a new typeface.

“Clearview is approachable,” says Craig Stout, a creative director at Interbrand, the agency that oversaw the AT&T campaign. “It isn’t shouting at you to get your business.” A year after AT&T began using Clearview for all its advertising and corporate communications, Interbrand conducted a follow-up survey, asking consumers, “Do you consider AT&T to be a technologically savvy brand?” Positive responses had doubled.

Read more about Clearview on Typographica and see sample signs on the Federal Highway site here.


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