The font you’ve seen and never noticed.
Highway Gothic is, as the name suggests, one of the many fonts used across the world for road signs. What I didn’t know is how many countries use this road sign font. Wikipedia reports the sign being used in the U.S., Canada, Ecuador, Venezuela and Chile with its influence being felt on other signage across the world.
The font is sans serif and reasonably unobtrusive. Ted Forbes is credited as the lead designer and the introduction to his research reads:
DURING THE LAST TWO YEARS IN THE CALIFORNIA DIVISION OF HIGHWAYS HAS EXPERIMENTED WITH THE DEVELOPMENT AND USE OF LOWER CASE LETTERS FOR OVERHEAD DESTINATION SIGNS ON FREEWAYS. RECOGNITION OF WORD PATTERNS IS KNOWN TO BE FUNDAMENTAL IN CLOSE READING OF ORDINARY PRINTED MATERIAL AND IT WAS THOUGHT THAT HABIT AND PATTERN FACTORS MIGHT ALSO MAKE THIS FORM OF LETTER DESIRABLE FOR HIGHWAY SIGNS. OPINION AS TO THEIR EFFECTIVENESS HAS BEEN VARIED, HOWEVER. THE PROBLEM THEREFORE WAS TO MEASURE THE DISTANCE AT WHICH LOWER CASE SIGNS COULD BE READ AS COMPARED TO ROUNDED CAPITAL LETTERS. EXPERIMENTS WERE UNDERTAKEN TO DETERMINE THE DISTANCES AT WHICH SIGNS OF EACH KIND OF ALPHABET COULD BE READ. LETTERS FROM 5 IN. TO 18 IN. IN HEIGHT WERE MOUNTED ON A BRIDGE 17 FT. ABOVE THE GROUND AND A TOTAL OF 75 OBSERVERS MADE 3939 INDIVIDUAL OBSERVATIONS UNDER DAYLIGHT AND ARTIFICIAL ILLUMINATION.
This font emerged from a serious requirement for clarity of expression in all types of conditions. Imagine some of our more eclectic fonts being used in its place. Papyrus would have created a huge series of obstacles in its adoption. Not only is it hard to read from a distance, but imagine how easily it would peel off as it went through extreme temperatures.
Comic Sans might work, but who would take a stop sign written in comic sans seriously?
Considering the temperature, ability to see the lettering in adverse conditions (fog anyone) reflective requirements and all the slew of considerations for manufacturing and installing a font there’s a lot Ted Forbes and the team got correct. We’ll have to explore in future editions the fonts for the autobahn and the brew ha ha that happened when someone suggested replacing highway gothic.