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.
Christian Palino is a designer and educator living in San Francisco. He is currently a Product Design Manager at Facebook and teaches Interaction Design at CCA. He previously worked at OpenTable, IDEO and Adaptive Path.