This post is part of a series called Hypefaces, where we explore the history around popular (and not-so-popular) typefaces.
Road Trip Season
Ever notice the typefaces on highway signage? How about interstates across the USA? How about all of North America? Did you notice it’s all over the world? With international adoption, the typeface received a lot of hype, and inspired several copycats.
It’s not a conspiracy; it’s a sprawling stepchild. This collection of letters and numbers is known as the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Series. Today its digital approximation is called Highway Gothic. The FHWA Series is part of the Federal Series of typefaces, or typefaces that follow very specific requirements for readability on light, dark, and reflective backgrounds; day, night, high speeds, and low speeds. There are a range of widths, from condensed to extended, called A (discontinued), B, C, D, E, EM, and F. Generally, the wider-set the letters, the better readability they have when a vehicle is moving at high speeds. It was designed with older and aging eyes in mind.
According to Pioneers in Transportation (PDF warning), Dr. Theodore Forbes “was reporting on studies of traffic sign visibility and legibility and was studying how driver responses were affected by sign-letter size and design, contrast, brightness, and placement” (p. 23) as he developed lettering for California roadsigns somewhere around 1939. By the time 1948 rolled around, the FHWA (then the Public Roads Administration) had standardized and codified Forbes’ lettering to all roadsigns in the United States.
In its original design, the FHWA Series was not a full set of characters–it only contained letters and numbers; no punctuation (why would highway signage need question marks? “Albuquerque is…this way? 👉” –No.) or glyphs (like an ampersand; Turks & Caicos do not approve). Without the extra doo-dads, it couldn’t technically be called a font. I found no evidence the collection of typefaces was even given a name until the series was digitized as Highway Gothic. They simply referred to the typefaces by the officiating bureau name (FHWA) and a version (Series A).
Today there is no significant difference between Highway Gothic (digital) and the FHWA Series (signs). This quirky typeface became a symbol of the open road, the road trip, adventure, and vagabonds. The FHWA Series embodied the spirit of Route 66. Today it is nostalgic, familiar, yet also a bland anomaly. Friendly, yet assertive.
Things bumped along merrily for almost 60 years until people began to notice that at high speeds, the s, e, and a of Highway Gothic all kinda….looked alike? In 2004, after reviewing the visibility and legibility of the FHWA Series, two type designers created a modern, wider-and-taller typeface to replace Highway Gothic: Clearview. The FHWA briefly approved, then quickly unapproved, then re-approved its use (geez, guys). That’s why you see signs boasting typefaces both with and without the razor-sharp tips (the terminals) and curly lowercase L.
Then player three entered the game: Interstate. Another same-but-different typeface that made its commercial debut in 1993-1994 and found its way into Britain, brands, and banks. CitiBank and Sesame Street began using it in their visual identities. Interstate was based on the FHWA Series E, or what we’d refer to today as “Highway Gothic Medium.” The type foundry refined it for use in print and on the web, softening some of the harsh lines seen the FHWA Series.
In 2015, Overpass made its debut. A free, open source font, the designer based it on Highway Gothic, and created a range of styles and weights. Commissioned by Red Hat, the font is a free download from Google Fonts. It has not replaced the FHWA Series on street signage, but it is a reliable alternative to Highway Gothic, which can be found on bootleg websites whose typefaces aren’t always up to snuff (read: just use Overpass if you want Highway Gothic). If you find instances of Overpass used in the wild, send ’em to me. The only one I’ve found is the PBS identity, which uses a customized version of Overpass.
Read ’til Your Eyes Bleed
- Standard Alphabets for the FHWA (PDF warning)
- Traffic Sign USA
- John Grimwade
- The Beauty of Transport
- Blue Highway, yet another highway font
A serif face that’s older than dirt.