The font on your highway sign tells the story of a decades-long battle

Only those with an acute attention to detail have noticed something wonky has been happening to signs on U.S. freeways and interstates over the past several years. Federal highway authorities haven’t been able to decide what font makes for the clearest, safest road signage, leaving some states with signs written in a font called Highway Gothic, others with signs in Clearview, and some places with a mixture of both.

This font saga dates back to 1948, when the Federal Highway Administration adopted Highway Gothic, a modified Gothic font, as its standard. The federal authority made the change following studies by the California Department of Transportation, which was seeking an easy-to-read font that wouldn’t be distracting to drivers. But that easy-to-read font wasn’t so easy to read come the 1980s when reflective highway signs became ubiquitous.

Halation, an optical effect that can make the edges of lighted objects appear blurry, was making lowercase letters on road signs difficult to read, especially at night. To address this issue, type design firm Meek & Associates collaborated with researchers to develop Clearview, a font that improved legibility by about 20% for all drivers without changing the sign’s size.

Although Clearview was initially approved by the Federal Highway Association in 2004, a study from Texas later challenged its effectiveness. The approval was rescinded in 2016, only to be reinstated in 2018, allowing states to choose between Clearview and Highway Gothic for their signage.

Today, a mix of both fonts can be seen on highways across different states, creating a unique blend of styles depending on when the signs were installed. The transition from Highway Gothic to Clearview can be observed on a road trip, with some states still using the former while others have adopted the latter.

The ongoing font battle on highway signs serves as a reminder of the importance of legibility and safety in road signage, with designers and authorities continuously striving to find the most effective solution for drivers. Next time you’re on a long drive, take a closer look at those lowercase letters on the signs to see which font your state has chosen.