This whole post developed this week because my car radio/cd player has died. I currently don’t have the money to replace it and the songs on my iphone were getting a little old. At first I didn’t like the silence. It bothered me. But as the days passed and I got more used to it, I started to notice more things around me, such as the traffic signs. The speed limit signs, the exit signs, the no turn right signs, etc.
Of course my curious mind started wondering where the font had come from, why that particular one had been chosen, who had designed it, and then I started wondering how we had even started using road signs (I do love my history!). So I got to researching and found out some interesting history!
As you could have guessed, road signs used to be extremely simple. The earliest road signs with actual wording on them date back to the Romans, when they would place stones throughout their empire simply stating how far away Rome was from that point. These stones were known as milestones. Stones to mark the miles. They were a bit ego-centric, but the monolith stones did the trick. No one ever got lost going to Rome.
During the Middle Ages, after Rome had fallen, the directional signage expanded. Now at intersections, there were multi-directional signs showing the path to several hamlets, towns, and cities. Just as the world was increasing in size, so was the need for their signs to be more specific and offer more options of destinations.
For the longest of time, the first two options worked, with no real need to change them or expand upon them. They actually worked all the way up until the invention of the bicycle of the 1870s. This was no ordinary bicycle: it had an extremely large front wheel and a rather small back wheel. For the first time, other than a horse and carriage, people were moving relatively quick, compared to walking from place to place, which was still a major mode of transportation. It is due to this new invention that cycling organizations started to erect signs that were more specific than just distance or directions to a location. These signs included information about upcoming steep hills, loose gravel, and a myriad of other things, warning these cyclists of possible dangers. Here we have the birth of the modern road/traffic sign.
From here traffic signs went the way of most communications on a large scale: standardization. With the invention of the automobile, it became even more clear that signs were needed. In the early days, when automobiles were mixing with carriages and bicycles on roads, it was often disastrous. There were no speed limits, no lanes of traffic. It was a bit of a nightmare. At this point signs had gone from being made from wood and stone, to cast iron that were then painted. This made them more durable and easier to write on with the new set of standard alphabets put forth by the FHWA (Federal Highway Administration) in 1945.
The pamphlet published was called Standard Alphabets for Traffic-Control Devices. It broke the acceptable and useable fonts into the follow: Series A, B, C, D, E, E(M), and F. Font Series A is the narrowest and Series F is the widest. Series E(M) is exactly like “E” but is slightly modified (thicker strokes) to allow for infusing reflector disks for high visibility at night. In 2004, lowercase letters were added to all Series A-F, allowing for easier visual legibility.
At this point I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “How could their possibly be this much information on one seemingly small topic?” Simple answer: I am a research hound. I love digging up information on topics you might not even think twice about, but also because there is a story to everything. I didn’t even drill down into the use of colors on signs and signage in other parts of the world, where words often aren’t even used so that they have a more universal usability. The writings on signage is endless and one that I will probably continue to research, even after this post is done.
Perhaps I piqued your interest in signs? Taschen, a German book publisher was also intrigued by signs from around the world and created the book 1,000 Signs which can be purchased from Barnes & Nobles.. This book is filled with signs from everywhere ranging from cows being abducted by aliens, to simply what a stop sign in another country looks like.
So check it out and enjoy!