San Francisco-based studio Manual sought to remedy the "confusing, inconsistent and messy" system of signs currently in place.

The tops of the signs are stripped with a band of color, corresponding to the type of roadway they represent--blue for interstate highways, white for U.S. highways, and black for state highways.

Manual dropped the green background in favor of gray and replaced the current system of shield symbols with simple square ones. The shields, they felt, were "dated and too 'police state.'"

In Manual’s proposal, exit signs go wireless, allowing a smartphone app to display information on the attractions and eateries that can be found at upcoming exits (and not just fast food).

Clarity and efficiency were paramount in the redesign.

The work in progress.

Toll roads seem like another prime candidate for smartphone-based payment.

Iconography and visual style remains consistent across the signs and the proposed app.

Co.Design

Redesigning Highway Signs, To Talk To Your Smartphone

There’s definitely room to improve highway signs, but would we miss the green ones that have grown so familiar?

Highway signs are an unavoidable and unmistakeable part of the American landscape, and they’re not likely to disappear anytime soon (Wikipedia says that the United States has "no plans for adopting the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals standards.") Still, the signage plays such a big part in our lives that even a speculative redesign represents an irresistible challenge for designers to tackle. For their annual Rethink issue, Icon Magazine asked the San Francisco-based studio Manual to do just that.

The familiar green placards that currently flank our roads, Manual writes, are "confusing, inconsistent and messy." In their place, the group devised a system of muted gray signs, using simple geometric markers in place of the existing shield symbols, which, they explain, feel "dated and too 'police state.'" Colored strips at the top of Manual’s signs maintain the color scheme currently employed to designate various roadways, with blue signaling interstate highways, white being used for U.S. highways, and black representing state highways. It all contributes to an immediate feeling of modernity and efficiency, and after looking at these orderly new signs for a while, the current ones do start to look a little bit silly, with all their cartoon shields and oversize arrows. Manual’s strict, rectangular signs also have the benefit of doing away with a particularly annoying little quirk of our current design: the four tiny green triangles that poke outside the rounded white outline at the corners of every highway sign. Those drive me crazy.

But the most radical components of Manual’s redesign can be found when you’re getting off the highway. The group’s proposal calls for every exit sign to be fitted with a wireless transmitter, connecting it to a smartphone app provided by the Department of Transportation. As drivers zoom down the interstate, the app would update dynamically with information on restaurants, gas stations, and local points of interest found at the exits ahead. It’s like a high-tech version of those signs that tell you what restaurants you can expect at the next exit, except instead of just announcing every McDonald’s and Cracker Barrel across the country, the app would feature independent businesses that lack highway visibility. Aside from the whole issue of fumbling with your smartphone while you’re hurtling down the highway at 80 miles per hour, this part of Manual’s redesign is especially compelling.

I must say, after a lifetime of looking at them, I’ve grown pretty attached to the green highway signs, shields and all. They may not be the most effective way to relay road information to drivers, but after comparing them to Manual’s somewhat clinical take, I have to admit that the existing signs have a sort of beguiling personality that I think I’d miss. Manual concedes that they’d allow the little shields to stick around for historic routes, appreciating that "they may have a certain Americana charm." I’d argue that there’s charm to the rest, too.

[Hat tip It’s Nice That]

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41 Comments

  • Kshitish Purohit

    There can't be wayfinding 'solutions' unless and until spatial and temporal landmarks are addressed wholly.

  • Christopherpatton

    Sorry to all readers my last comment regards the use of mobile devices in visual wayfinding.  It is important to remember that any intervention that takes your eyes away from the road is a detriment.

  • Christopherpatton

    Is it really sensible to introduce this level of technology to wayfinding?  Distracted driving is an increasingly destructive phenomenon.  Should we as wayfinding professionals really be turning the travellers eye from the sign the the device?

  • D. M. Chapman

    My biggest concern is that they *won't* make people any less cautious or altruistic on the road (perhaps, like the 'police state shields' do) because they've turned the color and design scheme into something that looks like it came out of Need For Speed or some other auto racing video game. If anything that'll only aggravate the issue...Hehe  ;o)

  • Joshua Christensen

    I think they look horrible.

    What is that bright sign going to look like in pitch black night with headlights glaring off of it? Or how about in a snow storm?

    I think the all square approach is bad too. The various shields at least let you very quickly identify what you're looking at and there is no second guessing what that number is associated with. The white doesn't have enough contrast to the grey so in direct sunlight, I imagine that would be really hard to distinguish.

  • Mnky

    Excellent analysis.   While the proposal looks "cool" it is not practical, as you have rightly pointed out.

  • Damian

    As pleasant the over all look is, I have to agree with many of the comments.  Graphically speaking it's not working at all.  I wish they had approached an design firm that specializes in Environmental Design or Interaction design over a branding firm.  Wayfinding is what they tend to do the most.

  • jmco

    Actually, the US Interstate Highway signage system design is quite good as a complex signage system. But implementation consistency from state to state varies.
    The informational signs are also green for a reason. Firstly, it is a pleasing neutral background color for all seasons, locations, and weather conditions. Green is also a good color to place things on for clarity. Remember those VYCO green cutting sheets architects used to put on drafting tables? That not too light and not too dark green is neutral. 
    But the signs also have white borders and other things that help with visibility. It is a pretty good mix of not too neutral but visible and not too complex. Essential at high speeds or poor weather.
    With the incorporation of the Clearview typeface and the use of upper and lower case, informational and safety signs should get better. But all the states need to adopt the new typeface and standards. Does each state need to do all the signs all at once? No. But when a highway is refurbished or signs are due to be replaced, yes. If a state can do more of it sooner, highway safety will improve.
    As far as comparing the US system with Europe or others that use the Vienna Convention, it is a bit like Apples and Oranges. Both are quite good but each has a different problem to solve visually, linguistically, typographically, culturally, politically, and aesthetically. To Americans, particularly those interested in design who visit Northern European countries like the Netherlands, it seems more “advanced” but, that is not always the case for complex signage systems that these are.
    Americans love to complex up things in an attempt to make them “better” somehow. But effective directional and highway signage is more about taking away all but the most essential. Adding an iPhone app won’t help that low income farmer and his kids on the interstate in a driving rain storm or blizzard get to the hospital two hours away. 
    An interstate sign system that is well maintained with clear typography and clarity in all conditions will. 

  • Mitch Newlin

    Oh yeah, great idea. 20 years from now my iPhone (or
    whatever I'm using) will have to interface with antiquated road sign technology
    because the cost to update the interstate system would be insurmountable.  Nice dream but I’m afraid it’s just that. 

  • Donny Kirkwood

    Light-colored text on a dark background is much easier to read than dark-colored text on a light background. This is especially important at night. The design also  assumes that letter provide better information than symbols, which isn't always the case. For instance, the state of Pennsylvania incorporates a keystone symbol, immediately identifying the state and road type while Delaware uses a rounded black and white sign. Replacing this with "PA" and "DE" gives an already distracted driver two pieces of visual information to study vs. just one. Considering that this redesign involves drivers' smartphones and this starts to sounds like an insurance company's and concerned parent's nightmare. 

    Speaking of the smartphone component, GPS does a great job of allowing drivers to locate themselves on the road. More technology is just more technology in this case, and would require the DOT to test and update an app constantly for multiple phones/OS combinations because it would need to function in emergency situations as well. State/Local/Federal government agencies are already stretched, they're certainly not going to start hiring iOS programmers by the dozens. 

    This is a great exercise, but it's impractical.

  • Krzystoff

    In Australia, for decades we have had the same style of hideous white on green arterial road signs with rounded corners, as the US.  

    the signs are generally clearer and quicker to read at high speed than the US examples, the difference here is there are fewer of the absurd shields (phased out of use), one large sign serves the whole road in each direction instead of a motley arrangement of multiple sizes, and the rounded corners are actually filleted (this may seem trivial, but sharp corners are a very real hazard for pedestrians and cyclists).
    the color of the signs is moving forward and now varies with secondary and tertiary roads, and heavy freight routes.
    personally I think it would be nice to have a more contemporary typeface.

  • Chris Just

    Well I don't look at my phone while driving and my Auto Nav basically does this! Put that with the fact to replace every sine would cost huge amounts of money when we don't have it, makes this a epic fail in my book.

  • skylabcity

    "every exit sign to be fitted with a wireless transmitter"
    Really? Is that the most efficient, effective and economical way to get geographical information to a smart phone? Sounds like an idea of the future from a kid in the '70s.

  • NaraSimhaMurthy

    1. I think all that might be required is a Road -sign-Translator App in the smartphone... which can display the same info in whichever style one chooses... so this way we save a ton on the expensive proposition of replacing these existing signs... which btw are just fine...

    2. A designer cannot just blindly assume that the wonderful highway sign-system in the US has not been 'designed'... some we seem to have developed this false notion that everything needs to be redesigned + all new designs are good + all redesigns are better +...etc....

    I am sorry this only tells me that design thinking is missing from this kinda approach that  'all dated stuff is not good'.... this 'replace everything old with new' mentality I feel is a dangerous approach which can spill over into our lives....

    --murthy gollapudi from India ( where there are no properly designed signs at all!! )

  • murthy

    please incorporate this edit-correction above in my post "... some we seem to have developed this false notion that everything needs to be redesigned" 

    should read = "... somehow we seem to have developed this false notion that everything needs to be redesigned