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]