For a recent issue of Icon magazine, San Francisco based design firm Manual was asked to rethink the United States road signage system, a pretty hefty feat. Manual’s goal was to “modernize and add clarity to a signage system that millions of road users rely upon every day.” But I’m not sure if their design went down the right road (had to make a pun somewhere in this post).
What I like about the classic American road signage above is the simplicity. In the western U.S. road signage is fairly straight forward, giving you a few clear options of where you’re headed and where you can get off. This can get a bit more convoluted when you head out east, as I found out on my last trip to New York, attempting to drive to New Jesrsey. For the most part though I would say that the bold Army green with white type and shield/crest markers gets the job done. They design may not be in tip-top shape, but it’s still solid.
WIth Manual’s rethink I feel like there are two issues: Color and Hierarchy.
Information is placed consistently on all road signs to enable drivers to read multiple instructions quickly. Color is introduced into the upper strip of the overhead signs. Currently, interstate highways are depicted by a blue shield, US highways by white, and state highways by (mostly) black. For the sake of consistency and ease of recognition, we have retained these color associations.
Tackling color first, I’d say most of the signage has unfortunately been dulled down to a grey that’s mildy noticeable at best. If I was driving down the freeway I’m not sure I would notice these at all, especially if they were near an advertisement. Or what about a bright day? How do the signs read then? My other issues is the number of colors that were used. I count eight colors total in Manual’s rethink, compared to six in the original, which includes the bright construction orange. Is that many colors really necessary to clearly display road information? What if instead there were only three colors allowed? Attempting to put restraints on the project may have yielded some exciting results.
The other issue is the hierarchy of the information being presented. What I’m seeing is a lot of boxes inside of boxes, my eyes aren’t really sure what to concentrate on. And I think all the division between the information, be it boxes or divider lines, adds to the confusion a bit. What’s also interesting is that if you look at the original signage above you’ll see that some of the signs are of different sizes, which I actually realize is kind of awesome. You now read these as totally different pieces of information, while Manual has decided to display the information in equal sizes. Having an equal size for all signage definitely makes sense in practice, but comparing the two I feel like I can read the older versions more easily.
I applaude Manual for undertaking a rethink of this caliber, I’d love to see more projects like this being done. Perhaps I should have a little contest next week to get more good ideas like this out there? If you’d be interested in doing something like this hit me up on Twitter or on Facebook.