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  • Ren Gudino

The Birth of Highway Gothic

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

The last thing you want to do when driving down the highway is squint to try and read a passing sign. Thankfully, we’ve had Highway Gothic as an American staple since the 1950’s, the standard font designed to keep drivers informed even at high speeds and poor weather conditions.

Theodore Forbes, an engineer at Illinois State Highway Department, created this sans-serif font to be bold, legible, and easily recognizable. It quickly became the standard for interstate highways across the country, with its distinctive shape making it synonymous with American roadways.

There's always room for improvement. In the 1990s, complaints began to pour in about the legibility of Highway Gothic, particularly at night and in adverse weather conditions. The Federal Highway Administration took note and set out to find a font that could do the job better. This led to what is now 7+ variations of Highway Gothic, as well as the birth of an entirely new one.

Enter Clearview, a font designed by the dynamic duo of Don Meeker and James Montalbano. By using a wider letter spacing and larger x-height, Clearview made it easier for drivers to read signs from a distance. Its success was quickly felt as several states adopted the new font.

Though Clearview’s intention was to replace Highway Gothic, it still hasn’t fully taken over. According to a survey by the Federal Highway Administration, 44 states still use the classic Highway Gothic, while only 6 have made the switch to Clearview. However, Clearview is gaining traction and several states are considering making the change

Of course, not every state uses the same font. California, for example, uses a modified version of Clearview called ClearviewHwy. Some states use custom fonts that are specific to their region.

In the end, the debate over which font is better may never be settled. What we can all agree on is the importance of legible road signs. Next time you’re cruising down the highway, take a moment to appreciate the font on the signs—it’s a part of the history that shapes our roads.

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