Optimal Signage Legibility Fonts

TBiddy's picture

Legbility. Is it a taboo subject? The word is tossed around, but has it actually ever been proven by any studies or analysis? Is it all up to individual preference, or are there truly typefaces that are "most legible" on signs? Is there any proof supporting any claims aside from our eyes? Clearview Highway is the only typeface that I know of that was actually tested and supported by research. Any others?

dezcom's picture

What do you qualify as testing? I would guess that their is a fair amount of unpublished testing done.

ChrisL

eomine's picture

FWIW: I've been working with signage for some time; wayfinding and room identification in educational and office buildings. I'm a bit skeptic about "proof" that some typeface is better suited for signage that another. Testing and research always implies in limiting a problem to certain conditions; you can proof that something works better than another thing, but only under certain conditions. The good thing about scientific studies, though, is that we can use them as reference, being most useful when discussing a project with a colleague or a client.

eomine's picture

FWIW2: Usually these are considered to be the main features of a typeface for signage: sans-serif, big x-height, open apertures, big counters and medium weight (somewhere between regular and bold).

William Berkson's picture

>Any others?

On his site, Montalbano now has up Rawlinson Roadway, a serif font for road signs approved for federal roads (national parks?). He says that it has also been tested, with similar successful results to Clearview.

So I think the 'san-serif' part of Eduardo's specification needs to be modified.

I also noticed that London's Heathrow Airport now has a serif face for way finding. --Is it a variation of Charter? Does anyone know about this? I don't like it that much (I like Rawlinson Road better), but it works well.

William Berkson's picture

Here's the link

.00's picture

Rawlinson Roadway has been up on our site since it launched several years ago. The font that the Park Service is using has been renamed NPS Roadway, because I didn't want to give up the trademark on Rawlinson, and in order for the Feds to approve the font, I had to release all trademark rights. A revised website is under development and will have more info on the Roadway font, as well as the ability to license our Rawlinson Roadway design.

dezcom's picture

James,
Is your site down or is it just the link in Typophile that does not work for me?
I tried to check out your font.

ChrisL

dezcom's picture

James,
It must be the Typophile link, I got there fine straight from my browser.

Rowlinson is quite nice by the way--and so is your site! Nice interface design!

ChrisL

Miss Tiffany's picture

Chris, which link didn't work for you? The link in William's post worked for me. I've noticed if you don't include the http:// and the www. it sometimes doesn't work.

dezcom's picture

Tiff,
If you click on the link from the Terminaldesign user account and click on "home page" you have the problem. There is no http:// showing there and that may be the problem. This may be the way James typed it in when he did his profile.

ChrisL

TBiddy's picture

I'm also not a big fan of the type used at Heathrow. Clarendon however, I consider to be as legible as Helvetica.

I'm just curious what makes people usually always default to Helvetica or Frutiger. In 25 years there haven't been any other alternatives? (With the exception of James' faces.)

TBiddy's picture

There also seem to be different schools of thought on signage legibility:
1) All wayfinding signage should be sans serif
2) Wayfinding signage can use any "reasonably legible" typeface
3) Larger x-heights increase legibility
4) The best sans serifs for wayfinding signage actually incorporate serifs or pseudo-serifs (see: Vialog (Linotype), FF Info Display, Jock Kinneir's Transport, Clearview Highway)
5) True sans serifs (no previously mentioned features) are sufficient enough

As you can see those are definitely conflicting details. What do you all think?

oldnick's picture

I’m just curious what makes people usually always default to Helvetica or Frutiger. In 25 years there haven’t been any other alternatives? (With the exception of James’ faces.)

I'm just guessing here, but it might have something to do with what's available in ready-made die-cut vinyl letters. A great deal of the signage in the DC Metro system is done with peel-and-stick.

BTW, DC has Clarendon signage out the wazoo...very popular in the 50s, when a lot of Fderal buildings and signage got their last major facelift.

crossgrove's picture

I'm with Terry, asking why there are such conventions around which kinds of typefaces are deemed legible for signage. To me, axioms like "Sans serif is best for signs" and "Serif type is more readable than Sans" are just parroted assumptions, not empirically true. Clearview is an enormous improvement over the original, engineered faces, but I have an idea that there is more yet to be discovered about which typefaces are most clear, useful, quickly read, etc. in wayfinding situations. In fact, my theory depends on ignoring, destroying or transcending the perceived opposition between serif and sans. I will prepare some test characters soon and post them.

hrant's picture

> “Serif type is more readable than Sans” are just parroted assumptions

Often, yes, but not always. Like when I say it, it's because of a combination of empirical and anecdotal evidence. I say it because it makes sense.

Also, equally parroted is hogwash like "we read best what we read most".

hhp

Nick Job's picture

David Kindersley was convinced that upper case serif was easier to read on a sign than upper and lower case sans serif. Have a look at this article by Kindersley:

http://www.cbrd.co.uk/histories/wartoworboys/4.shtml

The impression I get from Kindersley is that Transport, the sans serif u&lc font, was chosen because it was trendy at the time to use "Swiss-looking" sans serifs (hence Transport is an iteration of Akzidenz Gtotesk with occasional alterations to aid legibility) and not because of any inherent legibility qualities in the font itself. However, if you'd just had your font rejected by people who didn't really understand your craft and someone else's work was going to appear on the signs across the nation, you might want to push your point a bit. I guess as an apprentice to Eric Gill, and a lover of stone cutting, he probably thought that a 'grotesque' solution was just that.

For reference, the Transport fonts (Kinneir/Calvert) used in the United Kingdom can be found here:
http://www.dft.gov.uk/stellent/groups/dft_control/documents/contentserve...

As far as legibility testing itself is concerned, it can ultimately only solve the problem of finding which of two existing fonts is more legible. It doesn't necessarily point you in the right direction for the optimum. So font A may be more legible than font B, but font C (yet to be designed) may look completely different from A and B but perform much better under controlled testing conditions. Unfortunately testing didn't really help your endeavour to devise font C. I assume you want to design the optimum font rather than simply establish which is the best existing font. Testing may not help.

Nick Shinn's picture

Optimal legibility only really applies on highways, where you don't have much time to read. Otherwise, given responsible typographic handling (as well as an awareness of environmental "wear and tear"), most typefaces may be used for signage.

(However, train station names could be done in really long signs with hyperextended fonts, so you can read them when you're whizzing through at high speed. I've never seen this, but surely somewhere in the world has done it?)

Otherwise, I believe it's more important to get some brand differentiation going with your signage. Like, this is a unique place, not just another mall/town full of franchises. And for wayfinding, unless it's on a university campus, signage is going to be competing for eyespace with commercial signage, so why not use a different kind of type to what appears there? This is the same principle that periodical art directors often use, so that their editorial pages don't look like ads.

One of the pleasures of relocating to Norwich has been the street signs here, which are cast iron, in a Victorian sans serif.

hrant's picture

> you can read them when you’re whizzing through at high speed

Note that vision behaves very differently depending on whether the subject is moving or not: when looking at a mass of stationary objects, we saccade; but when looking at something that's moving, the eyes "track" it smoothly. Yes, Science, sorry. However, how this affects reading I don't know for sure. But I have a hunch we're not attuned to reading moving things well; I suspect we switch between saccading and tracking, not getting good info to "process".

BTW, I'm talking about lateral movement here: driving directly towards a highway sign is saccade-based, although I suspect as parallax increases reading starts breaking down. In fact James has equated highway fonts with text fonts; personally, although I see some similarities, the difference I think is that true immersive reading uses the parafovea. And I personally prefer to use my parafovea for spotting cops using on-ramps. :-)

hhp

oldnick's picture

Note that vision behaves very differently depending on whether the subject is moving or not

And sometimes our vision behaves differently when the subject is NOT moving; take a look at this; it's an entirely static image.

crossgrove's picture

Hrant,

What research can you point us toward re: reading/legibility in these wayfinding situations? Nick brings up something interesting: On a highway, movement is much more a factor. Other factors come into play in a train station, or inside a train.

I heard from a friend who visited Japan that they've used those silly blinking LED sticks to good effect in the subway: When the train goes by, the images they generate are stretched out and revealed, not by the viewer's waggling head, but by the speed of the train. So riders get pictures flashed at them. Unfortunately I don't think the pictures are very compelling, but it's interesting to think about how to make a signal/sign/image appear clearly to someone in a moving vehicle.

TBiddy's picture

Signs made for static viewing and viewing in motion can have different concerns. Being in a car whizzing by at 75 mph is different than merely walking up to a sign, or is there really a difference?

Sign placement also seems to be something to also take into account. Coming towards words printed on a sign I'm sure would yield different results than signs facing perpendicular to the mode of travel.

hrant's picture

I forgot:
> I believe it’s more important to get some brand
> differentiation going with your signage.

I agree.

--

Carl, I haven't focused on signage research - James should know tons about that though. That said, a lot of the more fundamental research efforts (like measurements of single letter decipherment, at various distances - a common theme) are applicable to virtually any reading task.

BTW, one great place to look for leads is Herbert Spencer's "The Visible Word".

hhp

TBiddy's picture

Nick J., I read the links that you posted. I think its interesting that two different avenues can be justified by the same study. Maybe there is no real proof that sans serif is better than serif or vice versa? Another thing to take into account is that people "scan" signs, and don't really read them. So what's easiest to "scan" quickly in an environment would yield different results than "reading" under table lamp.

hrant's picture

What makes you think people don't read signs? "Scan" is a term better left to describe the activity of looking for something specific among a mass of objects. In text, this is usually when you look for a name or number. So for scanning, fonts with prominent capitals and numerals help; leading is less important; what else?

Admittedly, on a highway very often a driver is "scanning" a sign for a street name he knows is there - he just wants to know where to exit. I think that just speeds up recognition at a distance - without affecting the nature of the recognition. But maybe it's more complex than that.

hhp

TBiddy's picture

"What makes you think people don’t read signs?"

There's a good amount evidence supporting this, its been documented. (See: Wayfinding: People, Signs and Architecture for one example). The other comes from basic observation. Most of the time when I ask people questions about signs, or information on them, most of the time they say: "oh, I didn't see that."

Most people I think just grab the bits of information they need and move on. Signs are short for a reason and don't usually consist of several lines of text. Attention span, and the ability to absorb info quickly is why I feel signs aren't read. The action of "reading" is quite different in nature.

dezcom's picture

"Most people I think just grab the bits of information they need and move on"

Isn't that the nature of wayfinding? Once someone has found the info they need to proceed, they stop "reading/scanning" and move on.

ChrisL

hrant's picture

I certainly agree that signs are not immersive reading. But I think "scan" is the wrong idea. When somebody "doesn't see" something, it just means his subconscious didn't think it was important enough to bring to consciousness's attention. But when it is brought to attention, it is "read", not "scanned". At least the way I use the terms.

BTW, I feel that in immersive reading as well people "grab the bits of information they need". It's just that book text has a lot less redundacy, so you have to read -almost- everything. However, this heuristic nature does nicely explain why the parafovea (which is quite lo-res) is so useful in immersive reading, and why boumas exist.

hhp

oldnick's picture

A favorite quote of mine: "Illusions of the senses tell us the truth about perception." -- Johannes Evangelista Purkinje, discoverer of the eponymous Purkinje Effect).

crossgrove's picture

>“Scan” is a term better left to describe the activity of looking for something specific among a mass of objects.<

Isn't that what is happening in the subway or at an airport? Information goes from being narrative to being like objects. Icons and arrows become as functional and informative as type, when the choices are many and there's no time to read each one. In this situation, I think we take broad, snapshot-like impressions and process them one at a time until we get ones we need to move on. I think the parafovea is working much harder then. We're looking for large chunks. Big Boumas! ;D Of course this is in a situation where the signage program is thorough.

hrant's picture

I think you're right.
Still, "scan" to me means looking for something.
But I can change.

hhp

dezcom's picture

Maybe the word is "search"? or is that a rose is a rose as well.

ChrisL

hrant's picture

"Search" seems too... conscious.

hhp

Nick Job's picture

When you read text, you deal with whole words at a time. You don't break words down to work out each word from its constituent characters (unless it's new to you), you recognise words because of their shape. Ascenders and descenders help this part of the process. First and last characters of words are also important. Finally the rest of the characters in the word are needed if the other two criteria have not proved decisive. So you don't "read" individual words as such, you only "recognise" them. "Reading" then is an overall process of "recognising" and "piecing together" multiple words/phrases and then transferring them into sensible thoughts.

On signs, you don't "read" a destination in the same way as you read a paragraph of text, you merely perform the initial stage of the process, the "recognising" a word firstly from its shape, secondly from its first and last characters*, thirdly from the rest of the characters. It is an important distinction to make because, on a sign, you are not really concerned with the "piecing together" part of the reading process and far more concerned with making the individual words (and occasionally phrases) recognisable to the user.

The theory that upper and lower case is more helpful is based on the assumption that words are easier to recognise by their shape than by their constituent characters. There is however an argument that says upper case only is better because individual upper case letters are more distinctive. However, I would suggest that word shape is higher in the batting order than individual character distinctiveness.

__________________________________________________________

*On the subject of first and last characters in words, you may have seen this:

Aoccdrnig to a rseerach stduy at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

I don't know if this was a real Cambridge University study but it's interesting.

TBiddy's picture

:) Interesting. I had virtually no trouble reading that paragraph. Save for the word "rest". That word is tricky, the only way you could change it is to change the middle two letters...but doing that changes how it is sounded out in your mind. Cognitively, it jars the flow a smidge.

Nick Job's picture

Hrant et al

Maybe the word is "recognise". After all you can only recognise a face in a crowd if you "see" it. You may or may not have been deliberately looking for it but if you see it, chances are you'll recognise it (if it's a face you "know").

The first thing signage has to do then is be recognisable as such. You need to "know" it's a sign or it's just another face in a crowd. Wayfinding is all about feeling secure. Nothing does that quite like seeing someone or something you know.

hrant's picture

Nick, some people -especially these days- have stopped believing the "whole word" theory of reading; they've come to put -misguided- faith in what's called the parallel-letterwise model, where words are indeed compiled (although not sequentially) through their constituent letters exclusively.

My own -admittedly ongoing- research has arrived at the conculsion that we read what I've come to call "bouma"s: these are sometimes whole whole words (ones that are very frequent and short), sometimes individual letters (in the fovea), but generally, they are clusters of letters. When you look at all the empirical data, take into account anecdotal evidence, and throw in beliefs about human cognition, it's the only thing that makes sense - to me at least.

hhp

Nick Job's picture

What I guess I'm saying is that you don't "read" boumas as such.

I would define it as follows:
Reading = recognising boumas + piecing them together to make sensible thoughts

Isn't wayfinding a matter of recognising boumas only (once you have worked out where to find them)?

oldnick's picture

One of the very few benefits derived from youthful indiscretions (otherwise known as taking psychoiactive drugs in the 60s) was a realization of the primacy of pattern recognition in human cognition. I doubt that anyone who hasn't been there (either through drug use or psychosis) can fully appreciate the flood of sensory impressions that we receive every conscious second; the only way we can really navigate through this riot of sights, sounds, tastesm smells and touches is by employing pattern recognition to select useful, important or just familiar stimuli, and discard the rest. Reading isn't any different.

William Berkson's picture

The 'Cambridge University' thing was discussed *extensively* a while ago. Search for the name 'Kevin Larson', the research psychologist who joined the discussion at some point, to find the threads. He is, I believe, giving a talk at ATypI.

TBiddy's picture

I think wayfinding often has very little to do with reading. Hrant, I think the approach you're taking is purely typographic. What Carl was talking about I think is that symbols play a necessary role in wayfinding as well as typography. What I'm trying to approach (although I don't know how possible) is to create a wayfinding system that is as universal (multilingual) as possible without typography confusing the issue. Words in context, mean more than words individually. For example since we've been using this word frequently:

READ

By itself, there is more than one meaning.

.00's picture

In some regard, speed really isn't that much of a factor in highway signage. Certainly your are speeding towards a decision point and time is of the essence. But the signs you have to read aren't really zipping by. They are "out there" somewhat in your field of view, but obscured by distance, darkness and/or atmospheric conditions.

hrant's picture

But there must be a reason people worry about speed of decipherment. Otherwise switching to Clearview for example (or switching at all) is pretty hard to justify. And I think the reason is that in "boundary conditions", like bad weather combined with being in an unfamiliar part of town/the_country, recognition time does matter; if you're trying to decide to get into the exit lane or not, switching between reading the signs and minding the (non-confused) local traffic whizz by you, a fraction of a second can make or break it; you might hit somebody passing you on the right, or miss your exit and get frustrated (ie more likely to hit something).

And this is in fact quite similar to "regular" reading: you're not always in a hurry to finish something you're reading, but sometimes, yes you are. It's just that the chance of dying is somewhat less. :-)

hhp

.00's picture

Time is the critical element. I was saying speed isn't a factor since the sign is not zipping by. You are closing in on the decision point. The sign is in your field of view. The farther away you can read it the better. Sometimes when people discuss this topic they make it sound like all of these signs are zipping by them and they have to turn their heads to read they as they go flashing by. That is not how it works. Distance from the sign, how far away can you read it, that is all that matters. So legibility distances and recongnition distances are what the research tries to measure. The Clearview stuff is legible and more recognizable from farther away, that is why the switch is on.

hrant's picture

OK, I get it now. And like I was musing above, I doubt we can read properly when parallax increases and speed (forward movement) causes notable lateral movement.

On the other hand, I think speed is a factor to the extent that it affects how long you have to decide if the sign says what you think, right? This is why people often slow down to read a sign... sometimes causing an accident.

hhp

hrant's picture

Basically what I'm saying is that Speed, Time and Distance interact.

hhp

dezcom's picture

"Speed, Time and Distance interact."
Didn't a guy named Einstein fiddle with that once? :-)

ChrisL

hrant's picture

Hey, I don't drive that fast...

hhp

Nick Job's picture

Yep, v=d/t (not sure if it was Einstein though - wasn't he E=mc²?)

Since recognition of words, once you can view them clearly, is virtually instantaneous, the earlier you can do it, the better. In this case, speed of approach does not affect time taken to decipher anywhere near as much as the actual design of the characters on the sign, which is why ClearviewHwy and Transport are so good. You can "read" (recognise/scan/whatever...) them from much further away than their predecessors, so you have more time to make your decision.

In theory, the further away a sign is the less your speed affects the reading process (i.e. if you have a very big sign on the horizon, it's going to be a lot easier to read than a little sign nearby that is moving quickly realtive to your car where your mind has to cope with the speed as well as the deciphering.

So, if you have to slow down to read a sign, there are several possibilities. Either:
- you're not really concentrating
- you're breaking the law
- the sign was positioned badly
- the sign was designed badly (and maybe the typeface used was badly designed)

In the case of UK roadsigns which are very clear and usually very well positioned, you were probably caning it or napping.

hrant's picture

> Since recognition of words, once you can view
> them clearly, is virtually instantaneous

And this is exactly where signage is not immersive reading: in the parafovea (which I believe participates significantly in reading) stuff is not seen clearly; but the brain's heuristics uses the information anyway.

> you were probably caning it or napping.

Or the weather could be bad. Did you say UK? :-)

Anyway, the point is people slow down to read signs sometimes.
And we shouldn't be playing "survival of the fittest" with signage! :-)

hhp

TBiddy's picture

"caning it"

Sorry, not familiar with that term, does that mean the same as "gunning" it?

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