Highway signs will soon get a new look—or an old one, depending on your perspective. According to CityLab, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) recently announced they will change fonts from Clearview—a typeface designed to improve legibility for drivers—to Highway Gothic, a font that was developed in the 1940s and used on road signs until 2004.
Font nerds and transit geeks might be the only ones who notice the switch right away. However, traffic sign design reportedly makes a big difference when it comes to safety. WNYC writes that Highway Gothic was problematic for aging drivers with poor eyes, since its letters turned into a bright blur from the reflection of headlights at night. In contrast, Clearview was less tightly spaced, and mixed lowercase and uppercase styles. Designers thought this would help people see sign lettering better in the dark and from long distances.
Initial studies suggested that Clearview was easier for drivers to read, and in 2004 around 30 states chose the font for their own signs when the FHWA gave them the option to switch. Now, according to CityLab, the FHWA says that research shows that Clearview actually makes it harder to read signs with “negative-contrast color orientations, such as those with black letters on white or yellow backgrounds like Speed Limit and Warning signs." According to The Verge, the reason Clearview might have seemed easier to read was simply because the new font meant that older, worn-down signs were being replaced with fresh ones.
The FHWA stopped approving Clearview at least two years ago. In the meantime, signs with Clearview lettering won’t be taken down, but as they age they will be replaced with Highway Gothic signs. Curious about the difference between the two fonts? Learn a little more about their history in the video above, courtesy of The Hardest Year.