March 04 2011

How City Signs Instruct Good Design

Auckland New Zealand Street Sign

NZ has exciting roads! Auckland, New Zealand

While on vacation I have enjoyed photographing cities through their signs, sometimes graffiti, public works, and even window displays. I find that these add dimensions to cities in a way that most of us wouldn’t even think about.  In an age where we are constantly bombarded with media, it is easy to forget that we go about our days directed by subliminal messaging as well as very direct instructions about where to go, how to shop, and even what one should eat.

I digress, I’m writing specifically about street signs as an urbanist planner.

Recently on a trip to the South Pacific (New Zealand and Australia), I noticed how their public postings and signs alert their citizens.

Brisbane Australia Children and Koalas

Brisbane, Australia: Children and Koalas Cross

I then recalled an article in the NY Times written in 2007, The Road to Clarity. This article goes into length about the American Federal Highway Standard font types and its decade long search for a legible font and the near exhausting red tape to have the font “Clearview” approved.

“Clearview,” is 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.  The typeface is the brainchild of Don Meeker, an environmental graphic designer, and James Montalbano, a type designer.  The author explains that signs are very much about psychology as they are about the typography and geometry.

What this tells us is that we can miss the essence of a good design if we simply view it as a sign. Your brain plays an integral part in perspective and understanding.

I believe location is everything, so it’s important to be aware of the local climate, terrain and culture in order to navigate your way through a new city and understand its signs.  Every city has a unique character and within that there is a context for what the sign is trying to tell you.

Washington D.C. Sharrows

Sharrows in Washington D.C.

In my hometown of Los Angeles, several bike activists began illegally posting sharrows on public posts and after five long years they are changing the climate and culture of biking. The Los Angeles City Council voted in Nov 2010 to use a pilot program of bike sharing signs and begin testing it on streets.

I have to say I’m jealous of Long Beach, CA who only took 4 months to approve their sharrows painting, but in Los Angeles through large scale events like Ciclavia, scheduled four times this year, where for seven-miles there is a no car zone, it will allow sharrows and a bike friendly culture to exist in a car-centric city.

What this tells me is that we can miss the essence of a good design if we simply view it as a sign. What are your thoughts?

See you on the streets and safe travels.

This entry was posted on Friday, March 4th, 2011 at 8:50 pm and is filed under Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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