Signs of Worcester: At least we’ve got “diversity” on street corners

“Sign! Sign! Everywhere a sign!  Blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind”

(I’m too young to remember that song in its heyday, but working as a dishwasher in my college years put me in contact with every musical form known to man, including the Five Man Electrical Band.)

If you travel the streets of Worcester on a regular basis like my family and I do, you can hardly have missed the dizzying variety of street signs at every corner.  Throughout most of my life, Worcester street signs were almost always a reflective green with white lettering in a narrow sans-serif typeface, all uppercase.  My husband remembers a time when many of the signs had a yellow background with black lettering — the typeface was very similar to what was used on the later green signs.  There are still a few of the yellow ones around if you keep your eyes open while driving in the city.

About a decade ago, new signs began to appear on the streets of Worcester, in various sizes, shapes and typefaces, and most recently with graphic elements such as a heart (Worcester’s said to be the “Heart of the Commonwealth”).  If you’ve been observant, you may have noticed a progression of these changes, as the city & its DPW tried out different elements & typefaces.  Since these “experiments” were then mounted at street corners, Worcester is now home to a very diverse assortment of street signs.

Here below are just a few that caught the eyes of my husband and I this past month:

We were curious about what sort of master plan (if any) was driving the various sign changes in the past decade.  Was there some sort of internal city/DPW rivalry regarding favorite typefaces & graphic elements?  Was there some reason that Worcester needed to change all of its street signs to meet some state or federal deadline?  Why are some very legible signs being replaced, while others in poor shape are left in place?

My husband spoke to an engineer at the DPW’s Traffic Department recently to ask about what the plans are for Worcester’s signs (as well as several other related questions).  The answers to our questions were interesting, and in some cases raised as many new questions as were answered.  The short answer about Worcester’s sign replacement is that there is no “master plan”.  The attempts at a new “look” for Worcester’s signs started shortly after the Shrewsbury Street area got some new street signs made up to go with one of their streetscape renovations.  City officials and DPW management liked the look of the new signs — but they were created by an outside vendor.  For a short while thereafter, Worcester did not have the equipment to plot/cut their own typefaces for signage, but in recent years they have.  And they’ve been “trying on” various typefaces since, as shown above.

The "look" that spawned a decade of design experiments

Shrewsbury St. -- the "look" that spawned a decade of design experiments

Adding to Worcester’s increasingly diverse portfolio of signage “looks”, a few of the more unusual typefaces on Worcester’s signs may have been put there by developers, if the new street they’re developing is private.

Throughout the next week or so, I’ll be posting on various topics pertaining to our street signs.  Here are some highlights:

  • How did we get here? A brief overview of the history of street signs in the U.S. since the automobile era started.
  • Effective use of typefaces in signage. What works & what doesn’t, from the perspective of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and in the graphic design industry.
  • Graphic elements. How does Worcester’s “heart” emblem compare to the town seals used in nearby communities?
  • Sometimes new isn’t improved. What’s good, bad and/or ugly about Worcester’s new street signs?
  • Where are we going? Worcester may have finally arrived at a typeface that city/DPW officials like.  Will the new signs meet the standards of the FHWA’s “Manual on Traffic Control Devices”, or will we have to replace them all over again in this coming decade?

If there’s enough reader interest in this series, perhaps we’ll finish up with a poll about Worcester’s signage policies, and I’ll personally take the recommendations to the City Council and/or its Traffic & Parking Committee.

Stay tuned!

(P.S. — If you have a favorite unusual Worcester sign, please take a picture and e-mail it to me.  If I don’t already have something similar, I may use it in one of the upcoming posts.)

8 thoughts on “Signs of Worcester: At least we’ve got “diversity” on street corners

  1. Tracy says:

    Looks like lots of time on Shrewsbury Street and west of Webster Square!

    (Abington is another street that only goes somewhere if you’re very very careful and have a vehicle that rides high enough.)

    • Nicole says:

      Most of the pictures (and all of the ones on streets Japanese sedans dare not tread) were done by my trusty research assistant, who did not want to be credited.

      The assistant would, however, like to say this:

      It’s not all Webster Sq. west and Shrewsbury St.

      Just to name a few that don’t meet that generalization:
      Marissa Circle is off Blithewood (Massasoit/Grafton area)
      Upland Gardens Dr. is in the Greenwood Street area
      Eastview Drive is near Mill Street
      Ellestuen Rd. is near West Boylston St.
      Marmion Ave. is in Greendale
      Squantum St. is near Burncoat

      More signs from more areas will be featured in later installments.

      We tried to make this project very representative of the whole city.

      • Mike says:

        Gotta agree with Nichole on this one: both east side and west side are represented; north and south parts of Worcester too!

        Kudos for the coverage!

  2. Tracy says:

    Yes, I know.
    Do you also play “Where’s that street?” in your house?

  3. […] of Worcester: At least we’ve got “diversity” on street corners, How did we get here?, The typography of street name signs, Graphic elements and street-type […]

  4. […] of Worcester: At least we’ve got “diversity” on street corners, How did we get here?, The typography of street name signs, Graphic elements and street-type […]

  5. Len says:

    I remember that when I was a kid – a L O N G time ago (well, back in the 60’s), the street signs in Worcester were wooden – painted a brigh, school-bus yelloe with black lettering – hand painted, I believe. These were replaced starting in the mid 60’s with the light yellow with black lettering, some that are still around. The green began showing up in the the mid 70’s. I have a photo that my Dad took around 1960 that shows one of the old yellow and black hand painted signs that I would be happy to send if there was interest.

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