A year ago I critiqued the newer street name signs in Worcester. One of the recurring comments I get from people when the topic of street signs comes up is that the Times New Roman typeface being used on some of the new signs is “prettier”. There is a prettiness to many serif-style typefaces. That’s why most books are typeset in serifs, and many large billboards feature serifed typography.
For the serifed type to be readable, however, there needs to be ample space around the lettering. One can do this on a printed page with typographic tricks like leading, kerning, margins, etc., and one can do this on a large sign like a billboard if one lays out the design properly.
Street name signs don’t offer much space — “sans serif” typefaces can be used in thicker weights (for more readability) because they don’t need to accommodate the extra space needed by the decorative serif elements.
It’s hard to convince the “serifs are prettier” crowd that the prettiness makes things less readable from a distance. But at the intersection of Park Avenue and Salisbury Street, I noticed the city has once again erected signs with inconsistent typefaces. That would normally elicit a grumble from someone in the car, but in this case, I thought there might be an opportunity here for a teachable moment. Behold a sans-serif typeface used on the Park Ave. sign on the left, and “Times New Roman” on the Park Ave. sign on the right:
The inconsistency of the city’s sign program offers a perfect illustration of how ineffective the serifed signs are.
Here’s my suggestion to the DPW&P for a simple goal in 2011 — less pretty, more effective.