Friday, November 5th, 2010

Draining the Gothic Out of Our Highways

The other day, I was occupied in an activity that’s an everyday occurrence in city life—freeway driving. And as I sped along, my eye caught a slight disturbance in my expected experience.

Were the freeway signs different? Was the font different? Had the kerning gone all higgledy-piggledy? (The last is a term used by specialists; please don’t try it without expert assistance.)

It turns out that my eye was correct. A new font is being launched on Arizona freeway signs. We are part of a wave sweeping the country, and its name is Clearview.

Being font-crazy, I looked into this development. What I discovered is that we have to say Farewell to an old friend, the romantically named Highway Gothic.

Highway Gothic and Clearview: You decide

An interview on the local NBC affiliate with Doug Nitzel shed a little light. The ADOT staffer explained how Clearview aims to help our aging population. Capital letters, formerly 16 inches tall, now are 20 inches.

That story and the move to Clearview reminded me of a conversation I just overheard—at a funeral, of all places.

As I sat in a funeral-home pew, there was a lull in the proceedings, giving a senior member of the congregation the chance to speak—in a stage whisper—to his seat-mate.

“I just read a news story,” he began. “It was about a 70-year-old woman who was found dead in her home. The story called her ‘elderly.’”

“Since when is 70 considered elderly?” he complained.

He may have a point. If 70 is the new standard audience for freeway font types, maybe we have to rejigger our age-ist viewpoints (which makes me a reborn spring chicken!)

This font alteration is part of what the Maricopa Association of Governments calls the Safety and Elderly Mobility Sign Project.” Their website describes the font and its rationale.

“This project will promote the use of Clearview font. Clearview font was developed jointly by the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute (PPI) and Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) through a decade of research starting in the 1990’s. The goal of the Clearview font is to increase legibility and reduce halation of sign legends in comparison to that of other FHWA Standard Alphabets for Traffic Control Devices (E-Modified and Series D). The research development effort resulted in final design of Clearview font letters in 2003.”

“Clearview font letters were developed to specifically address four issues with the legibility of other alphabets:

  1. Accommodate the needs of older drivers
  2. Improve word pattern recognition by using mixed case words
  3. Improve the speed and accuracy of destination recognition
  4. Control or minimize the halation of words

(What the H is “halation”? I had to look it up, too. Webster’s defines it as “a blurring or spreading of light around bright objects or areas on a photographic image.”)

Enjoy your weekend. And remember: You’re only as old as freeway font experts say you are.

Here is some more background on Clearview by The New York Times, in a story cheekily titled “The Road to Clarity.” And here is another story, on how a font change made a difference in one neighborhood.

For a different view on fonts, read this story on research that shows how effective difficult-to-read fonts can be in the goal of comprehension (comic-sans, anyone?)

And here is a side-by-side comparison of the nostalgic favorite, Highway Gothic, and Clearview.

Wednesday evening saw a great event: a party celebrating two Phoenix School of Law achievements.

As you may have heard, the state’s only for-profit law school has garnered full accreditation from the American Bar Association. And this fall, it also hired new law Dean Shirley L. Mays.

Shirley Mays, Dean of the Phoenix School of Law

At twilight on the fourth-floor patio of the Phoenix Downtown Sheraton, speakers battled with hard-working AC compressors to commemorate both accomplishments. Dean Mays spoke eloquently on the “justice gap,” in which the legal needs of many—including the elderly, veterans and the poor—are left unmet. That, she said, is one of the abiding challenges of law schools today.

Phoenix Law, Mays said, is committed to launching graduates who are “book smart and justice ready.” They seek to foster “a culture of innovation.”

“The world is in a time of mind-boggling transition,” Mays said. “The elections yesterday prove that.”

Don Lively speaking at the Phoenix Law reception. Nov. 3, 2010

Other speakers included Don Lively, the school’s first dean and now the senior vice president for parent company InfiLaw, based in Naples, Fla.; and Phoenix attorney Pat McGroder, who is on the school’s regional board of advisors.

As I left the event, I bumped into Don Lively in the elevator. We recalled how we spoke years ago in an interview when the school was first established. He laughed as he sympathized with me, who had to listen to his far-ranging musings on legal education—and beyond.

Pat McGroder

I also laughed, but I reassured him of one thing: The conversation was entirely enjoyable, mainly because of the passion he brought to it. I admit that talking to Lively takes you on a path that’s a blend of law-school lecture, Nova special on the cosmos, and a wiki on popular-culture references. But for someone who talks to lawyers all the time, Don’s passion was one of the first clues I had that something truly different was in the works at this new legal venture.

And now the ABA has weighed in—apparently they agree.

Congratulations to the school. And we look forward to more of that passion from their newest Dean.

More photos from the event are here.