dot-font: Industrial-Standard Typefaces

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The new type specimen book from FontShop, for the FF DIN type family, set me to thinking about so-called undesigned typefaces, especially those derived from the letters used on highway signs.

The conceit is that these typefaces are simpler, more straightforward, and somehow more honest than faces with that have subtler curves and fine serifs and that bear a visible pedigree from the history of type design. They look functional. And hey, they must be functional, right? They're used on highway signs!

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Industry Type
"DIN" stands for "Deutsche Industrie Norm," which means exactly what it looks like it means: German industry standard. The standards apply to many areas beyond type, but DIN has taken on a symbolic importance in the realm of German public lettering. FF DIN is based on DIN-Mittelschrift, a ubiquitous signage face that FontShop calls "the German 'Autobahn' typeface." The original DIN-Mittelschrift is a clunky design, "a spotty typeface with quirky letterforms," devoid of any character except its artlessness. It is, however, legible.

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Figure 1: FF DIN is based on the German industry standard ("Deutsche Industrie Norm") for signage on the Autobahn.

Albert-Jan Pool, a Dutch designer working in Hamburg, took on the challenge of reworking DIN-Mittelschrift to give it a little bit of typographic elegance, and expanding it into a type family of several weights, so that it might become a usable part of the typographer's palette for all kinds of graphic design, in text as well as display. He even created an italic ("a combination of rationality and emotion"), a condensed (with the aid of other designers, scrupulously credited in the specimen book), old-style figures, and a few alternate characters, for those "looking for slightly less severity in a face." The result is a "rational"-appearing typeface that is more readable than the original DIN types but still evokes all the associations with German industrial engineering. (Interestingly, the specimen book mentions specifically that FF DIN has become popular with designers "working for label's that promote contemporary music.")

The Street Has Its Uses
FF DIN is not the only typeface derived from road signs.

Font Bureau's Interstate family, based on the typeface used on those green freeway signs that punctuate the U.S. interstate highway system, has been extremely popular. Tobias Frere-Jones adapted it in 1993–94; since then, he and Cyrus Highsmith have expanded it into what Font Bureau calls "a plethora of enticing styles" (see figure 2). Like FF DIN, it gives the impression of being raw, but it's a lot more elegant than its source.

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Figure 2: Font Bureau's Interstate, based on U.S. freeway signs, has proven extremely popular.

James Montalbano's ClearviewOne is an attempt at a real signage face -- a better alternative to the clunky Interstates and DINs. So far I've seen it used quite successfully in text, but I haven't followed its allure down an actual highway.

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Figure 3: ClearviewOne was designed by James Montalbano to be used on actual highway signs.

Mark van Bronkhorst (who, ironically, is now handling the marketing for FontShop San Francisco) developed the Conduit family for ITC in 1997. ITC Conduit goes after the same sort of artlessness as Interstate or DIN; van Bronkhorst saw it as the lettering that an untrained person might draw on the side of a boiler. (Its letterforms even look a little like steam pipes.)

All of the faces I've named, except perhaps some of their roadside originals, are well designed and executed. But a typeface derived from signage isn't always suitable for text. A few years ago, the designer of science fiction writer William Gibson's novel "Virtual Light" used a highway-signage typeface as the text face for the hardcover edition of the book. Yes, it was legible. But the typeface didn't distinguish very well between the period and the comma -- and Gibson's style makes very precise use of both.

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Figure 4: Highway-signage type used for the text of a novel? Go back! You are going the wrong way, as this page from a William Gibson novel shows.

Faux Naïf
What is the appeal of these typefaces? They give the illusion of not really being designed at all, so using them in print reinforces the idea of naive authenticity and unstudied design.

This is all nonsense, of course; it's just a look, a style. But it's a style as useful as any other, and sometimes it's appealing and perfectly appropriate. When you need a typeface that evokes this kind of feeling, one of these fonts might do the trick.

Read more by John D. Berry.

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