August 11, 2004
Rotis revolution in my head
The skies are a desaturated blue-grey. The rain is pouring down in sheets on my windshield and the tail-lights of the cars in front look like they have come through some streaky Photoshop filter. Billie Holiday is competing with the staccato of the fat raindrops and I�m cruising along in the carapace of my car. It is an altogether trippy experience. The only thing that spoilt it was the sight of the green and white road signs, squinting at me with their slitty-eyed e�s.
There are 17,000 road signs in Singapore. Since August 2001, some 10,000 of them have been replaced by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) at a cost of S$200 to S$700 per sign. The result: the age old all-caps black-and-white Grotesque typeface were replaced by Rotis, an altogether more trendy type with a very unevolved ampersand.
The most legible font in the world?
Rotis was the brainchild of Otl Aicher, a famous German designer known for designing the symbols used for the first time at the Munich Olympics and the Traffic typeface for Munich transport services. He was a contemplative designer who proclaimed Rotis to be �the most legible font in the world.�
Those of you with your Rotis radars up would have noticed that this font has, in recent years, become the most overused typeface in these parts. From Semb Corp to the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to Kinokuniya, announcing the arrival of the Circle Line to being body text in annual reports, Rotis appears to be the font du jour for Singapore designers.
I hate the Rotis road signs with a venomous ferocity. For me, likeability takes second place to legibility when it comes to typography for way-finding signage, which makes Rotis Extra Bold road signs a greater travesty than if it had been chosen for purely aesthetic reasons.
Besides being too anemic, the typeface is too delicate for signage purposes. The great variation in stroke weight means that the thin bits of the letters disappear at a typical distance at which the signs are viewed. While its predecessor had a no-nonsense air about it, Rotis just comes across as idiosyncratic and oh-so-pre-millennium.
Perhaps the greater crime here is not the choice of typeface, but the extra wide kerning that the face is subject to. Which makes you wonder about the typographic decision-making behind the road sign facelift.
Who�s behind our road signs?
Hongkong-based Citigate Lloyd Northover was LTA�s branding and signage consultants and they seem the likeliest suspects. After all, they did use the Rotis Serif for LTA�s logotype.
However, Steve Crooks, Citigate�s Design Director for the LTA project, said that they were not responsible for the road signs.
According to an LTA spokesperson, the architectural conceptual sketches for the new street name signs were done �in-house�, while the detailed design and production of the signs were carried out by an aluminium structure specialist. Some engineers speculated that it might have been a �design-and-build project�, meaning the design was proposed by the manufacturer bidding for the road signage project.
It looks like our road signs were not �designed� in any meaningful sense of the word.
An expert opinion on Rotis road signs
Crooks, a wayfinding and signage design expert with clients like London�s Heathrow Express Airport, British Airports Authority, Hong Kong�s MTR Corporation (with Citigate Lloyd Northover) and Singapore�s LTA, wrote in a report to LTA in November 1998 that �� this particular typeface [Rotis Serif] was primarily designed for use at relatively small sizes in printed material and so is not necessarily the most appropriate font to be used at much larger sizes on wayfinding signage for a transport system�. The extra wide letter spacing of the lowercase letters is a fundamental typographic mistake. The effect is that one notices the individual letters and struggles to read the words.�
When asked whether he felt the new road signs were an improvement from the old ones, Crooks replied, �the new sign seems to replace one set of problems simply with another set of problems�.
Directional signs vs road signs
He also provided a primer on the differences between road signs and directional signs. �Road name signs do not have quite the same requirements as directional signs. Most road name signs are viewed from a stationery or very low-speed point-of-view. Road name signs are often positioned to align with the general direction of the road, rather than facing the direction of the traffic travelling along that road, the way direction signs are.
�A direction sign must be clear, unambiguous and concise to enable the drivers of vehicles to rapidly make decisions whilst they are driving at speed. This consideration directly affects the choice of typeface for such signs. Examples include Transport Helvetica in the UK, Interstate in the USA and DIN-Schrift in Germany. These are all functional san serif typefaces.�
To be fair, more goes into a road sign than just type and kerning. An LTA spokesperson stated that the new signs have uses a prismatic reflective sheeting, which is six times brighter than the materials used for the previous generation of road signs. He added that �surveys involving both motorists and pedestrians using prototype signs of various materials, font types and sizes found that the new design was 20 percent more legible in the day and 100 percent more legible (that is, it can be seen at twice the distance) at night than the old street signs�.
I was skeptical. The statistics seem to raise more questions than they answered. How were the tests carried out? How many people were surveyed? What other font types and sizes were tested? How far ahead was Rotis in this beauty pageant? And finally, how were the percentages derived?
Reading two signs placed in front of you on purpose is quite different from reading it when driving at 60km/h. In the first instance, almost any typeface is legible and perhaps the enamoured tend to gravitate more towards what they like than what is easier to read.
Polling with a twist
I decided to carry out my own straw poll. And for a twist, I polled designers and non-designers separately.
Much to my surprise, my findings were consistent with LTA�s. Ten out of the 15 non-designers polled preferred the new signs to the old ones and 13 also found the new signs easier to read.
By contrast and coincidentally, 10 out of 15 designers preferred the old signs, with reasons ranging from �I hate Rotis� to �hard to read�. Needless to say, many of them took the opportunity to spout Frederic Goudy�s oft-(mis)quoted line, �Anyone who would letterspace lowercase letters would steal sheep�.
Are the results significant? I don�t know, but they�re sobering enough. Do people really find widely spaced words difficult to read? Or is it a case of designers repeating theories that they learnt in design school? Are our road signs a product of a non-designer for non-designers? Was Rotis a truly democratic choice, made without designer bias and snobbery? Or is it a glaring typographic faux pas on a national scale?
Nothing I learnt during this exercise has made the Rotis road signs any more legible. But learning that Rotis was Aicher�s idea of a typographic panacea, the earnest efforts of non-designers who unwittingly found themselves the architects of our typescape, coupled with Rotis� popularity with the masses, the road signs do suddenly seem a lot more lovable.
See also Road Signs.Posted by Karen at August 11, 2004 05:39 PM in typography