Sign Me Up: Washington Metro’s Sign Shop

The soul, if you will, of a subway system is in its signage. From the clean lines of the London Underground and its Johnston typeface through the mish-mash of typefaces and styles in New York City’s transit system, signs do more than direct passengers. Subway signs tell a story about the aspirations and history of the system.

Be Smart: Ride Metro by wheelo541 on, via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial license

Today’s Washington Post story by James Hohmann, (“Metro’s Sign Shop Points Riders in the Right Way“, Tuesday, August 25, 2009) details the efforts of the people responsible for keeping the Washington Metro‘s signs updated and functional:

The sign shop provides a glimpse into the aging system that Metro is struggling to maintain 33 years after it opened. The transit system has about 127,000 signs, which need to be repaired or replaced when they become outdated, vandalized or broken. Or when someone asks for them.

“Every time a new initiative comes down the pike, that number is growing,” said sign shop project manager Paul Kram. “We don’t make policy. We make signs.”

Metro’s signs are just as memorable as the station architecture; while perhaps not as grandiose as the vaulting arches of Metro Center, the signage is distinct and legible, even when the station names grow to unwieldy lengths to satisfy various community constituencies (U St/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo might be an accurate description of the stop, but it’s about six words too long for a station name).

Of note is the trend towards electronic signs, with their limited capacity for stylish typefaces. One hopes that technology will improve sufficiently that we aren’t forced to suffer design limited by the lowest-common denominator of the LCD…

(Image courtesy of wheelo541 via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial license.)

Read at Speed: European Traffic Sign Typography

Ralf Herrmann’s Typography Weblog has been running an occasional series of articles on the typefaces used in European traffic signs.

Sign Yard 04 by mrjorgen, via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike License

Traffic sign typefaces need to be legible under varying light conditions, from different distances, and at speed, a different set of usability standards from typefaces designed to be read on paper or a screen eighteen inches away in artifical light. As Ralf Herrmann notes in his recent article about French traffic signs:

The design of L1 and L2 are neither very good nor very bad. It’s a typical semi-geometric design similar to the traffic typefaces used in other European countries. A unique feature are the large counters of P and R. In general it is a good idea to have large counters for a typeface used for traffic signs, but a letter is also recognized by the white-space around it, so they might have overdone it a litte bit.

Blogs like Ralf Herrmann’s Typography Weblog, that aren’t afraid to delve into delightful arcana, make me smile. While I’m as guilty as the next person of putting up quick, referential posts (like the one you’re currently reading!), detailed articles that scoff at artificial word count limits are the real gems of the Internet.

(Image courtesy of mrjorgen, via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike License.)