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Typeface Review

Wayfinding Sans

Reviewed by Christian Palino on March 13, 2013

If you’re in the Northwestern Hemisphere, think about how much time you spend looking at your local roadway signs every day. Now think about how many typefaces are used for those signs — you can count them on your hands.

Highway Gothic (FHWA), DIN 1451, Transport, SNV, Clearview, and the less viable Helvetica, Univers, and Frutiger cover most of the collective landmass. These typefaces, alongside a handful of quirky one-off faces used in individual countries, represent pretty much the entire population. To succeed — as Ralf Herrmann has with Wayfinding Sans — at designing a type family that can be used across roadway signs in multiple languages (including Cyrillic and Greek) is an exceptional achievement.

What Herrmann has done can really only be compared to Don Meeker and James Montalbano‘s Clearview, as there is no other current-day example that has taken such an approach. Like Clearview, Wayfinding Sans was extensively informed by existing road signage typography and took a human-centered approach to design — establishing a framework for legibility and and the various environmental challenges that would be present for people navigating while on the road, at speed.

What I love first about this typeface is, honestly, that its creation was undertaken with people as the key variable. The result truly excels at legibility while at the same time feeling human and familiar. Really familiar. While you can tell that Herrmann worked to establish letterforms that maximize distinction — making decisions that work first for human factors, rather than aesthetics — it’s not clunky or overly utilitarian. There is also great sensitivity to system details like common and often confusing letter pairings in multiple languages, and to the inclusion of diacritical marks and necessary symbols.

Zuzana Licko once said: “We read best what we read most.” While nothing could be truer, Wayfinding Sans takes on that very challenge. We can only hope that Herrmann keeps working at it.

Christian Palino is a designer and educator living in San Francisco. He is currently the Director of Design at OpenTable and teaches Interaction Design at CCA. He previously worked for IDEO and Adaptive Path.

10 Comments

  1. James Montalbano says:

    I don’t think you can accurately compare Wayfinding Sans to Clearview until Wayfinding Sans has been subjected to the extensive human factors research studies that Clearview has.

  2. Thanks, James. I wouldn’t argue one can make an “accurate” comparison either, just a broad strokes comparison to the approach (cause thinking about it alongside Mrs. Eaves doesn’t provide much context). The point being that we’re talking about type systems that are the one percent of the one percent of typography, in a highly specialed area.

  3. James Montalbano says:

    But even a “broad strokes” comparison fails. Until Wayfinding Sans is subject to the kind of legibility research that Clearview was put through it is just another sans claiming to do what its name says it does.

  4. Henk Gianotten says:

    There is a reseach study available from the University of Berlin. Several typefaces (like Frutiger and Futura) are compared. However, no Clearview.

  5. Henk Gianotten says:

    James: The study on wayfinding fonts is written by Sven Neumann. The document however, is only available in German, I think. Sven compared Arial, FF DIN, P22 Underground, Garamont, Franklin Gothic, Futura, Frutiger and Swift. It seems that Wayfinding is the most readable (leserlichkeit) on long distances. Frutiger is on position 2. Sven did not test other fonts such as Interstate, Vialog and your Clearview.

  6. James Montalbano says:

    What was the size of the test population of this study?

  7. James, I think you’re missing the point of this compilation of typefaces, it’s about appreciation. One can compare anything they like, not just quality (which perhaps you’re implying?), of which there is no mention. I’m making a comparison because there aren’t many typefaces out there designed with similar constraints in mind. You’re an expert in roadway typography — is there nothing about Wayfinding to appreciate? Perhaps you could offer some insight or guidance as surely it is a subject you care about?

  8. James Montalbano says:

    The only thing I appreciate in any “wayfinding” typeface would be its effectiveness. Henk sent over the results of a study that showed Wayfinding Sans out performing some other typeface designs. That’s good, I appreciate that. But to comment or appreciate solely on the way it looks strikes me as rather shallow when what matters is its performance.

  9. Thanks, James. Maybe you’ll have the opportunity to try it out in the wild sometime in the future and see how it does. I did, and found some effectiveness in it.

  10. James Montalbano says:

    I’m not really in the business of using other designer’s type so I don’t think I’ll have the experience of using it “in the wild”. Perhaps you could share the effectiveness you found in it.

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Typographica is a review of typefaces and type books, with occasional commentary on fonts and typographic design. Edited by Stephen Coles and designed by Chris Hamamoto. Founded in 2002 by Joshua Lurie-Terrell. Relaunched in 2009 by Coles and Hamamoto.

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