Signs of Our Cities

Typographers -- those folks in charge of stringing letters together to form words, sentences, and paragraphs -- have always been concerned with legibility and have long considered it a rule of thumb that printing using upper- and lowercase letters is easier to read -- i.e. more legible -- than copy set in all capitals.  This formerly arcane artisanal concept has now become a very widespread one, as posters on the internet and e-mailers quickly learn that use of all-caps is a very big no-no.

A little knowledge, however, can be a very misleading thing.  The idea, first of all, applies  exclusively to languages written in a script that has upper- and lowercase characters.  While readers of tongues employing the Latin, Cyrillic, or Greek alphabets experience that duality in their written communication, hundreds of millions of others around the world are perfectly happy to read and are capable of easily reading Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Burmese, Lao, Hebrew, Arabic, Hindi (and the myriad other languages of the Indian subcontinent), and many others which have but a single case.

Secondly, even with respect to the dual-case languages, the superior legibility of upper- and lowercase printing applies to running text, not necessarily to headings, titles, and other short copy, such as street signs.

The difference, if there really is any, in being able to read a sign that says "BROADWAY" instead of "Broadway" would be measured in milliseconds -- hardly of any significance.  But take a few bureaucrats who think they may have learned something from internet practice and add some "studies" (conducted by firms such as 3M, which have a strong interest in supplying signage materials), and voilà! -- we have new Federal High Way Administration rules mandating a changeover by every municipality in the country to signage in upper and lowercase lettering, plus a change in specifications for typeface, reflectivity, and letter size.  Just about every other aspect of street and traffic signage, such as colors and shapes, had already been covered by federal rules.

The changeover to upper- and lowercase from all-caps lettering is said to be partly due to the notion that older people have more difficulty reading signs in capital letters.  Can't prove it by me; I'm in my seventies and find no advantage at all in the cased vs. the all-cap signage, if the same typeface is being used (some typestyles are inherently more legible than others due to their designs).

The changeover, adopted by the FHWA in 2003, was not published until 2009, when their new manual was issued, and it will take place over a period of several years with completion of the switches by 2018.  Also, it will cost plenty.  It's estimated that the expenditure required for compliance by New York City, for example, will be in the neighborhood of  $27.6 million.  "In Milwaukee," reports ABC News, "this will cost the cash-strapped city nearly $2 million -- double the city's entire annual for traffic control."

But it's not just large metropolitan areas that are affected.  Even a tiny hamlet such as Pigeon Forge, Tennessee falls under the federal mandate.  Of course, the funds required will come from the pockets of the local taxpayers -- nary a dime will be provided by the bureaucrats in Washington who thought up this vast boondoggle.  "In Dinwiddie County, Virginia -- with lots of roads but not many people -- the cost comes to about $10 for every man, woman[,] and child," according to ABC's calculations.

Another consequence of the new rules will be the imposed uniformity of white type, green background, and a somewhat unattractive typestyle to replace the color-coding schemes used in some areas to indicate a borough, neighborhood, or district; to distinguish a "themed" or historic neighborhood; or simply to reflect the local populace's preference.

Except for the power (Art. I, Sec 8) "[t]o establish Post Offices and post Roads," the Constitution says nary a word about local streets and highways, let alone includes federal jurisdiction over such transit-related matters as signage colors, lettering styles, and similar details even with regard to said "post Roads."  On the other hand, when has Congress let a little problem like that stand in the way of bureaucratic spread, unfunded mandates, and expanded control of states' and cities' local concerns?  But that's the subject of another article.

In the meanwhile, rejoice that a portion of your tax dollars will be diverted away from such endeavors as national defense, education, firefighting, or policing in order to transform your local street signs into an ugly, D.C.-dictated uniformity with highly dubious benefits in terms of the road safety said uniformity is claimed to improve.  The folks who make and install the signage will share in your joy.

Richard Weltz has spent most of his lengthy business career in the graphic arts industry and is a former president of Typographers International Association.
Typographers -- those folks in charge of stringing letters together to form words, sentences, and paragraphs -- have always been concerned with legibility and have long considered it a rule of thumb that printing using upper- and lowercase letters is easier to read -- i.e. more legible -- than copy set in all capitals.  This formerly arcane artisanal concept has now become a very widespread one, as posters on the internet and e-mailers quickly learn that use of all-caps is a very big no-no.

A little knowledge, however, can be a very misleading thing.  The idea, first of all, applies  exclusively to languages written in a script that has upper- and lowercase characters.  While readers of tongues employing the Latin, Cyrillic, or Greek alphabets experience that duality in their written communication, hundreds of millions of others around the world are perfectly happy to read and are capable of easily reading Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Burmese, Lao, Hebrew, Arabic, Hindi (and the myriad other languages of the Indian subcontinent), and many others which have but a single case.

Secondly, even with respect to the dual-case languages, the superior legibility of upper- and lowercase printing applies to running text, not necessarily to headings, titles, and other short copy, such as street signs.

The difference, if there really is any, in being able to read a sign that says "BROADWAY" instead of "Broadway" would be measured in milliseconds -- hardly of any significance.  But take a few bureaucrats who think they may have learned something from internet practice and add some "studies" (conducted by firms such as 3M, which have a strong interest in supplying signage materials), and voilà! -- we have new Federal High Way Administration rules mandating a changeover by every municipality in the country to signage in upper and lowercase lettering, plus a change in specifications for typeface, reflectivity, and letter size.  Just about every other aspect of street and traffic signage, such as colors and shapes, had already been covered by federal rules.

The changeover to upper- and lowercase from all-caps lettering is said to be partly due to the notion that older people have more difficulty reading signs in capital letters.  Can't prove it by me; I'm in my seventies and find no advantage at all in the cased vs. the all-cap signage, if the same typeface is being used (some typestyles are inherently more legible than others due to their designs).

The changeover, adopted by the FHWA in 2003, was not published until 2009, when their new manual was issued, and it will take place over a period of several years with completion of the switches by 2018.  Also, it will cost plenty.  It's estimated that the expenditure required for compliance by New York City, for example, will be in the neighborhood of  $27.6 million.  "In Milwaukee," reports ABC News, "this will cost the cash-strapped city nearly $2 million -- double the city's entire annual for traffic control."

But it's not just large metropolitan areas that are affected.  Even a tiny hamlet such as Pigeon Forge, Tennessee falls under the federal mandate.  Of course, the funds required will come from the pockets of the local taxpayers -- nary a dime will be provided by the bureaucrats in Washington who thought up this vast boondoggle.  "In Dinwiddie County, Virginia -- with lots of roads but not many people -- the cost comes to about $10 for every man, woman[,] and child," according to ABC's calculations.

Another consequence of the new rules will be the imposed uniformity of white type, green background, and a somewhat unattractive typestyle to replace the color-coding schemes used in some areas to indicate a borough, neighborhood, or district; to distinguish a "themed" or historic neighborhood; or simply to reflect the local populace's preference.

Except for the power (Art. I, Sec 8) "[t]o establish Post Offices and post Roads," the Constitution says nary a word about local streets and highways, let alone includes federal jurisdiction over such transit-related matters as signage colors, lettering styles, and similar details even with regard to said "post Roads."  On the other hand, when has Congress let a little problem like that stand in the way of bureaucratic spread, unfunded mandates, and expanded control of states' and cities' local concerns?  But that's the subject of another article.

In the meanwhile, rejoice that a portion of your tax dollars will be diverted away from such endeavors as national defense, education, firefighting, or policing in order to transform your local street signs into an ugly, D.C.-dictated uniformity with highly dubious benefits in terms of the road safety said uniformity is claimed to improve.  The folks who make and install the signage will share in your joy.

Richard Weltz has spent most of his lengthy business career in the graphic arts industry and is a former president of Typographers International Association.