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Interstate Aesthetics

Interstate and road signs provide travelers with an array of information, from mileage to bathroom locations. Consistent and effective signage is crucial to travelers. The design that goes into making these signs is commonly taken for granted. Had the designers of these signs been less aware of effective layout, the result would have been disastrous. Imagine a highway with dim signs containing a small, serif type- face that cannot be read until the viewer is two feet away.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s mission statement is to, “Save lives, prevent injuries and reduce economic costs due to road traffic crashes, through education, research, safety standards and enforcement activity.” US Interstate Highway System signs are effective because of well planned and successful design. Interstate signage contains three major design elements that make them both recognizable and readable: color, shape and type face.

Interstate signs are color coded for various purposes. For example, blue is typically used for informational signs while yellow is used for warning signs. The standard colors used for directional signs are reflective green with screen-printed white lettering. All interstate signs use a highly reflective finish over the background colors to achieve visibility. The reflective backgrounds show up in dark or foggy conditions and provide a luminescent quality under light. Road sign designers utilize contrasting combinations of text and background colors. The formula of white text on darker backgrounds or black text on light backgrounds keeps lettering highly visible. With directional signs, the white lettering is clearly readable against the reflective green regardless of low-light conditions.

While shapes vary to some degree depending on local regulations, the US Interstate System stipulates rigid standards. Few drivers notice that the shape of interstate signs are not completely rectangular, they have rounded corners. The rounded corners, aside from being a safety feature, give the signs a smoother appearance. Additionally, a border is painted a few inches from, or along, the periphery that follows the curved edges. The border acts as a control for eye movement within the sign. When looking at an interstate sign, the viewer’s eye travels easily around the edges. If a sharp edged corner or border were used, the eye would have a tendency to follow the border lines off of the sign instead of being redirected around its content.

Like color coding, sign shape also references particular purposes. By creating consistent association of shape and meaning, drivers are able to quickly recognize and react appropriately to signage. Most anyone would respond correctly to an octagon-shaped sign, even without red paint and the word “stop” printed on it. Square and rectangle shaped signs are designated for guidance or directional purposes. Having to work with specific shapes and adjusting layout to fit them is another concern for designers.

The type face used for content on interstate signs is also rigidly controlled and formatted, and for good reason. The type must be legible and large enough to be seen from long distances and in poor lighting. Without significant attention to detail in the typography of interstate signs, travelers would not have the adequate response time when reading them. The wording must use a type face that is clear, evenly spaced and clean. The font currently used on industry standard signs, Clearview, is a sans-serif, angular design with clean and sharp edges. Ample and even space between letters, also provides these signs with superbly legible text.

The untold amount of time that has gone into creating and perfecting the design of interstate and road signs cannot be ignored. Attention to the smallest details, from corner rounding to letter spacing, keeps drivers safe and efficiently directed. Aesthetics may have little to do with today’s sign making, but it is evident that these signs do in fact contain not only effective communication design, but are also aesthetically pleasing.