All right, after the usual Spacer-defending hate mail from the last post, I thought I would thoroughly fisk the original article I mentioned – “Mixed Signals,” Spacing, Winter 2006, p. 10, apparently by Liz Worth.

The ever-widening tentacles of harmonization are dipping into the visual landscape of Toronto once again, this time tinkering with the former six municipalities’ distinctive street signs…. Old signs are being replaced on a case-by-case basis – the more rusty or damaged the wayfinder, the more likely it will come down.

The author acknowledges the poor condition of these ancient signs.

There are some good things about the new design: The signs are much more visible, due to a larger and new reflective surface….

An acknowledgement of functional improvement, which could end the discussion right there. If you wanted to have a discussion about a 5% improvement versus a 20% improvement, fine, but the fact is that road signage is functional typography and function has been improved. It isn’t a question of ornamentation in any sense.

the use of upper- and lower-case letters makes street names easier to read; and the colours used for each of the old Metro cities will stay in place.

Again, an acknowledgement of a functional improvement and also the retention of a decorative element (that, in most cases, will not harm legibility, as the old cities’ colours tend to be light on dark).

While the new signs mimic the old signs, they look like cheap knockoffs – they remind some of cardboard cutouts, which are bereft of any kind of sophistication.

This isn’t an invitation to tea at the Ritz. Sophistication has nothing to do with it. And what’s causing this overreaction is a switch from pressure-formed relief letters to flat signs. But there were already flat signs in the old municipalities (check the faux-Greek out on the Danforth, complete with transliteration of English street names).

I am actually willing to vouchsafe that new signs in Clearview that are also three-dimensional might be nice to look at. It would be useful to set several of them up in a neighbourhood alongside the flat signs and do a comparison and a usability test. If the addition of a third dimension did not impede legibility and if it didn’t cost an arm and a leg, I’d support the addition. However, I strongly disagree that flat signs are deficient by being flat. (How far are you going to take this? Do you also want the large blue street signs affixed to traffic lights to be three-dimensional? They’ve got enough problems – and the deficiency usually articulated by malcontents, that they seem designed for vehicles, isn’t one of them.)

Another problem has been the lack of communication with the city’s heritage groups or any kind of public consultation….

I really and truly don’t see why they should have any say in the process of updating dysfunctional old signs to new and functional ones. What this really means is “You should have held a meeting so that ignoramuses and illiterates could insist that the old signs stay untouched forever.” Just imagine the carefully calibrated indignation, the queue at the microphone to decry the desecration of these venerable symbols of Toronto, the triumphant next-day blog postings.

When I hear “consultation,” I hear “opportunity for boisterous yet uninformed rejection.”

I can certainly concede that a very unusual heritage group might be able to come up with a proposal that improves legibility while retaining some kind of historical character. But in practice what we’d get is a business improvement area, viz. the Beaches or Church–Wellesley, acting as though public street signage is advertising space they own and imposing their Windows typographic illiteracy. (Why aren’t Spacers protesting that?)

Proponents of this whole idea should show us some very well produced mock-ups so we’d have an example of a legible yet historic street sign. Until then, you’re talking about unicorns.

[T]he signs were not being archived or given to local residents, community groups, or businesses.

A serious and important point. Somebody needs to find out where the signs have gone and how that decision was arrived at. (An access-to-information request costs $5.) It’s not too late to save many of them (possibly thousands).

There is no reason why the city shouldn’t take the time to modernize its street signage with an eye toward better functionality, but a little more sensitivity to Toronto’s history would have made this transition much more palatable.

Unless and until I see an example, I will remain convinced that you can’t reconcile those two. “Sensitivity to history” is a licence to do nothing. It’s an argument that would be put forth by people who can’t distinguish Arial from Helvetica, and certainly can’t tell you why neither of them should be used on a road sign. (“I can read them fine. What’s the rush?”)

Did you know that the city is screwing up its usage of the Clearview font in several different ways? Ask me nicely instead of sending hate mail and I’ll write about it. (In one case it comes straight from the type designer.) In fact, somebody with a better camera, preferably with zoom, could do a briliant Flickr set of the true variation in street signs in this city. I know quite a few nooks and crannies to send you to, plus I’ve got my own cache of shots.

And do you really not wear berets? Your shit sure reads as though you do. And I know from funny hats.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2006.04.04 15:53. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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