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Michael Leizerman
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FHA Makes U-Turn on Highway Sign Font Choice

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Most drivers read highway signs (or should), but few are likely paying attention to the font type that is used on them.

The Federal Highway Administration has been experimenting with the use of the font “Clearview,” on some highway signs since 2004, persuaded to do so by a 2003 study that found the font to be easier to read from a distance and at night. But on February 23, a ban of the Clearview signs went into effect after research found not only that Clearview signs are not easier to read than the traditional “Highway Gothic” font signs, but also that the use of the two fonts was confusing for motorists, even if they didn’t realize it was.

According to the FHA, “Although seldom specifically identifiable by the motorist, non-uniformity of a sign display or sequence of signs might exhibit itself in less direct ways, such as diminished legibility, requiring additional glance time directed toward a sign or group of signs instead of toward the traffic on the road.”

The Psychology of Font Choice

 Choosing a font should not be taken lightly, as the FHA found out. Serif, sans serif, and display typefaces all influence readability and trigger specific ideas, feelings, and emotions:

Serif – a small line attached to the end of a stroke in a letter. Considered traditional, respectable, and reliable, some examples of serif fonts include Times New Roman, Baskerville, and Georgia italic.

  • Sans Serif – as the name implies, no line attached to the end of a stroke in a letter. Thought to be stable, clean, modern, and easy to read, some examples include Helvetica Bold, Calibri, Arial, Highway Gothic, (and Clearview, by the way).
  • Script – characterized by fluid and varying lines, similar to handwriting, and considered elegant, affectionate, and creative. Popular script fonts include Bickham Script, Edward Script, and Lavanderia.
  • Modern – known for heavy downstrokes, regular shapes, and hairline serifs, modern fonts are strong, stylish, and progressive. Examples include Futura, Helvetica, and Gotham.
  • Display – usually larger than text fonts, display fonts give character to a business publication and project friendliness, uniqueness, and expressiveness. Examples: Valencia, Cooper, and Spaceage Round.

Fonts have a psychological impact on readers, whether in emails, resumes, menus, websites, or highway signs. Often without even realizing it, readers react to the appearance of text, a reaction that can sometimes take their attention away from the matter at hand: driving.