“LOOKSMAXX” (v.)

At the last of the seriously underpublicized viewings of the proposed new Toronto streetsigns this week, I had an argument with the lead designer thereof, Jeremy Kramer of Kramer Design Associates, a company with a simply dreadful Web site that is headquartered in a deconstructivist confection of a building on Dupont.

The meat of the quarrel was as follows, roughly but accurately paraphrased:

Why did you use Akzidenz and not Clearview?
We could have, but you can’t have every sign everywhere using Clearview. We think this font works well and strikes a balance between distinctiveness and city character and legibility.
OK, but what test results do you have to prove your Akzidenz Condensed is as legible as Clearview for a range of user groups?
We tested our mockups and found them legible.
OK, but where are your test results?

A defensive Jeremy Kramer started questioning my expertise – always a risky enterprise at a public meeting, where not everyone who shows up is uneducated and a rube. I explained that signage is not akin to other forms of typography like advertising. (“Are you an advertising typographer?” he asked. No, and he isn’t, either.) Legibility comes first, everything else second. And you have to prove your signs are legible, and not only to a couple of designers in your office.

There was much back-and-forth about Akzidenz. I will note here that the use of an (indeed the) aboriginal grotesk sansserif is a nice recherché choice if you want to deflect criticism. “We could have used anything – heck, we could have used Helvetica – but, in deference to our extensive typographic acumen, we went back to the source and used Akzidenz.”

Kramer asked me if the New York subway had been amiss for having used “it.” I told him that Massimo Vignelli did not have engineered and tested signage fonts available to him when he designed the system in the ’60s. (I didn’t also mention it’s a mixture of Akzidenz and Helvetica.)

Kramer told me Akzidenz has been used around the world for signage for decades. It has? Akzidenz has? Akzidenz Condensed has? (That’s what Kramer’s sign mockups use. Condensed vs. normal width is a seriously germane difference in legibility terms.)

I told Kramer I had read the research showing reaction-time improvements in the blue Clearview signs attached to traffic lights at major intersections, a sign design the Spacers and their blog commenters hate. Kramer replied with a mishmash of statements about testing residential streetsigns at speeds in excess of the limit. Who the hell is suggesting that?

I told him over and over again that I would support the use of Akzidenz Condensed on his new signs if it were subjected to A/B testing against typefaces custom-engineered for signage (Clearview, Transit, a few others) and worked as well as those faces. And it has to work for an enormous swath of the population, not the people he works with.

Oh, and one more thing?

Kramer told me with a straight face that Clearview was “derived from” Akzidenz. I answered that I knew the designer personally (I suppose that was a minor stretch; James Montalbano and I have talked on the phone once, but we E-mail from time to time) and I knew for a fact Clearview was designed from scratch. It isn’t even in the same family as Akzidenz, I said, any more than Gill Sans is. And I double-checked this with Montalbano later, who indeed confirms what I said. If he’s going for recherché, it seems Kramer is going to have to try harder.

I don’t think Jeremy Kramer or his company actually understands the stakes involved in designing street signage, or what kind of testing and verification are necessary before his cherished design might actually be put into use. I don’t think the City understands any of these facts, either. Everyone involved – everyone – appears to believe that “I like it” and “I can read it” are all we need to hear to rush right ahead with implementation. (It’s certainly all we need if the people saying “I like it” and “I can read it” are the designers, BIA executives, Spacers at the Clean & Beautiful City roundtable, and city staff.)

We aren’t designing signs for you, your taste, and your reading abilities (or mine); we’re designing signage for everyone in Toronto who can see them. Our æsthetic opinions are well and good, but what matters is performance. And you have to be able to prove it.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2006.09.29 11:37. 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:
https://blog.fawny.org/2006/09/29/kramerquarrel/

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