If you’ve driven on highways in the US, you may have noticed that signs don’t look quite the same. Vox recently highlighted the two different fonts that are approved for use on highway signs: Highway Gothic and Clearview.
Highway Gothic was designed by the California Department of Transportation in 1948. It was designed with specific characteristics like the angled tops of some of the letterforms to differentiate between shapes (i.e. capital I and lowercase l in Illinois) to make it as readable as possible.
In the 1980s, Highway Gothic started to have issues when reflective materials were introduced. The problem called Halation—a glow around reflective material treated letters—is what started to happen when viewed at night. The counters of the lowercase e and a are quite small, so they can look like o’s.
Type designers from 3M and Penn State University teamed up to try to solve this issue. The result was a new typeface, Clearview. Some features include bigger counters on letters and it seemed to improve reading at night by 16%. Although there are improvements, the thinner weight can make it hard to read on lighter signs.
Clearview ended up getting approved for use on highway signs at the end of the 90s, but was not used to completely replace signs with Highway Gothic. The result? Mixed signs all across the country. While it still remains unclear which is more successful, both typefaces were designed with the intention of getting you to your destination.