Signs of Worcester: The typography of street name signs

We began discussing Worcester’s street name signs last week by showing a selection of images which present some of the many “looks” we currently see on our street corners.  One of the features that currently lend such variety to our signs is the inconsistent use of typefaces.  Those of us who aren’t designers may think we know about typefaces because our computers have a bunch of them pre-installed, but there may still be a lot for us to learn as well.  Today we’ll take a crash course in display typography and see how Worcester’s new signs measure up.

The typeface on street name signs that I grew up with in Worcester weren’t anything exciting — just a plain sans-serif font, much like other surrounding towns, and no graphic elements.  That typeface did what it was supposed to do . . . convey information legibly.  Several nearby communities have begun replacing their older signs in recent years, and in some cases they’re now a bit more unique in their design by their creative use of typeface, color and/or graphic elements — lending an individuality and “brand identity” as you cruise their byways.  In an upcoming installment of this series, we’ll take a look at signs from some surrounding towns.  Worcester has also begun to replace its older signs, but in a less orderly and less consistent way.

As I mentioned last week, my husband spoke recently with an engineer from the DPW’s Traffic Department about the street name signs being replaced.  He was told that the new signs are attempting to recreate the look of some signs installed on Shrewsbury St. during some roadwork earlier in the decade.  Some do use the same typeface, but the results look quite different, as we’ll see below.

Let’s take a quick look at some terminology we’ll need to discuss Worcester’s signage.

What Is Typography?
Typography is the art of designing, arranging and/or modifying type for the sake of readability and legibility.   Once the domain of talented experts, the field now includes anyone who owns a cheap computer.  The latter have been using their typefaces for years now without much training, and in many cases, it shows.

What Are Typefaces?
Typefaces are a set of characters of a single size and style. At one time these were pieces of lead with typographic characters on them, used in the printing industry, or shapes/outlines used in signage.  Today they’re almost always generated electronically.  Some examples of well known typefaces include: Arial, Garamond, Times New Roman, Verdana, etc.

What Are Fonts?
Fonts are the various styles and sizes within a typeface “family”. For example, Arial is a typeface, while a font might be 12-point Arial Black, which is a specific size and style within that typeface family.

What do “Sans-Serif” and “Serif” mean?
Serifs are small decorative elements on the end of letter strokes, the style of which can vary greatly from one serif typeface to another. Serif fonts are most often used for body text in printed material because it is considered easier to read on a printed page. When used at a large enough size for display purposes, such as on signs, these typefaces can lend a certain professionalism or aesthetic appeal.
Sans-Serif typefaces are those which lack serifs. These are used more often for headlines, headings and smaller sections of text. Sans-serifs are also considered to be easier to read on computer screens.

Point Size/Height
The point size of a letter is its height. One point equals 1/72 of an inch, therefore size 72 letter is one inch high.  There are twelve points in one pica, another type of measurement; type can also be measured in pixels.

The height of a lowercase “x” — the bottom of the “x” is known as the baseline, while the top of the “x” is known as the midline.

Ascenders are the parts of a letterform that extend above the x-height. In the word “handle“, the tops of the h, d, and l are the ascenders.
Descenders extend below the baseline. In the word “judge“, the bottom of the letters j and g are the descenders.

Kerning is the technique of aligning characters together so they are visually even. A well-kerned set of characters has equal horizontal space between characters.
Tracking differs from kerning in that tracking is the adjustment of space for groups of letters and entire blocks of text. Tracking is used to change the overall appearance and readability of the text, making it more open and airy or more dense.

How good is Worcester’s street sign typography?

Let’s examine some of Worcester’s street name signs and why they’re very diverse-looking.  From a design perspective, Worcester’s new signs “fail” in several respects:

1. The lack of a consistent typeface.
Setting aside for the moment that the sign replacement program is far from complete, the newer signs in Worcester use several different typefaces, and even within the “Times New Roman” family (which city administrators and DPW managers liked in the Shrewsbury St. signs), we see the use of different widths, weights, uppercase vs. lowercase, etc.  Here below is an analysis of eight street name signs photographed on various Worcester streets in January 2010, showing their font and any adjustments — an older-style sign is thrown in for comparison:

2. The problematic use of lowercase letters on Worcester’s 9-inch sign blanks.
Notice the location of the descenders in the following photos:
They are at or near the bottom edge of the sign. Occasionally a letter with a descender is bumped up above the midline or scaled vertically to fit.  The DPW’s Sign Shop seems to find it challenging to fit the descenders onto the 9-inch blanks.  Staying with an all-cap format (such as in the “Shamrock St.” sign above) would eliminate the problem of fitting in the descenders.

3. The thinness of the new font
Many of the newer signs in Worcester use “Times New Roman” as their typeface, a couple of inches taller than the lettering on the older signs.  But “Times New Roman” is a much thinner font than what was used before, so there is no net gain in retroreflectivity in night driving, nor is the “tracking” (letter spacing) increased to improve daytime visibility.

Older typeface versus newer typeface

The Federal Highway Administration’s “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices” (MUTCD) sets standards for the heights of uppercase and lowercase letters on street name signs, but unfortunately leaves the typeface as a “recommendation”.  Here’s the look they suggest:

Notice they’ve used a sans-serif font in uppercase.

What do you think of the typography of Worcester’s street signage?  Do you like the newer serif typefaces despite the thinness of the type (and the DPW’s difficulties with descenders)?

I think that sans-serif fonts are a better choice for these small signs, and in heavier weights than Worcester’s newer signs are using.  We’ll see some of these in an upcoming post about the signs in surrounding towns.

In the meantime, if you’d like to create your own street name sign image (like the one below), click on the image to visit a nice sign generator website:

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Are you a typography geek?  If so, you might enjoy the following:


7 thoughts on “Signs of Worcester: The typography of street name signs

  1. Joe says:



    • Nicole says:

      I hope that’s a good Wow and not a “she’s gone off the boring ledge” Wow. If there are any compliments, they should really be directed to my research assistant/graphic expert.

      • Joe says:

        That’s a Wow, I can’t believe you have the time to do this Wow.

        This is the kind of research the City should have done before making any changes. I’ve thought, in passing, when looking at certain signs, that maybe there was some master plan to make it all come together.

        Now, we can all see that this is a fiasco- and it will probably get worse before it gets better. Why replace brand new signs.

        BTW, my opinion: go with the old style. They are far more readable than any of the new variants, especially the thin Serifs.

        I think you’ve done a good job of staying factual on this- not injecting too much of your own opinion.

        Great Job.

        • Nicole says:

          Much of the credit is really due to my anonymous research assistant, who has helped me with the graphic design information. I am not a visual-arts expert, but I have been concerned about what I see as a lack of readability in the new signs.

          After this series (I think we’ll put together two more posts on street signs), I’ll take this (with any reader feedback on what works for the street signs) to the City Council.

          I’d also welcome recommendations for future series. I’m not going to be able to go breaking-news kinds of stories, and I’m never going to be a source for insider gossip, but I’m up for any stories that are of interest and require research. So — if you’re happy with what we’re doing here — suggest away!

  2. Tracy says:

    I am a typography geek, ‘though not as much as you are. I am also a serif fan. I seem to remember that there was something about one’s eye recognizing serifs and thus those typefaces being a faster, easier read? Any idea?

    • Nicole says:

      From the research assistant:
      It depends on the place the type is being used. On a printed page, serif works best. On a computer screen, sans-serif works best. Flying by a small sign at 40+ miles per hour, a nicely spaced sans-serif works better for most people.

      This article on Clearface might also give some insights.

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