Typefaces for signage and wayfinding

In wayfinding, typography and pictograms play the key role in getting the information to the user which all boils down to legibility and semiotics. If the message can’t be read in an instance, the user is more likely to seak out information elsewhere and the sign will have lost its purpose.

In this post I will focus on typography and leave the pitfalls of pictograms for another time.

As my projects primarily are in tourist destinations, where signage is more about storytelling than of a “life and death“ situation (e.g. in a hospital), I allow myself to bend the rules a bit. Though only to a certain degree as people with visual impairments should never feel excluded in any public place.

The main aim must therefore always be to use typefaces that can be read from a proper distance and in a variety of weather conditions, light intensities and visual acuities.

How to make this happen?

My former teacher and typeface scholar Sofie Beier studies the legibility of typefaces and has written several books on the topic. One of her books, ‘Type Tricks – your personal guide to type design´, provides, among other valuable knowledge for designing typefaces, key points on what to be aware of when using typefaces in a physical environment.

Lesson no. 1

Letters seen from afar corresponds to the small letters seen close up. The consequence to this is the letters must possess the same characteristics to be legible, namely low contrasts, open counters and apertures.

Lesson no. 2

For maximum legibility in signage, space the letters generously and be aware that this is extra important for light letters on a dark surface.

A spread from the book Type Tricks

Lesson no. 3

Choose typefaces with a large x-hight as this improves legibility.

Bonus lesson: I might also add that you should avoid long words and passages in upper case.

If you want to be wiser on this subject (I know I want to), check out Sofies website www.sofiebeier.dk, where you can also find her book ‘Reading Letters, designing for legibility’ which is also on my immediate reading list.

So what does the perfect typeface for wayfinding look like?

In Per Mollerup’s book ‘Wayshowing>Wayfinding’, he offers his bid on an array of appropriate typefaces with the before mentioned characteristics, namely

  • Signa, condensed bold (shown below)

  • Frutiger 67, bold condensed

  • Info, medium, semibold and bold

  • DIN, mittelschrift

  • Univers 67, Bold condensed.

Sofie Beier has designed a typeface for signage named Ovink, which is rooted in Danish design tradition and has been subjected to experimental legibility investigations of distance and time treshold methods. The findings are very interesting and I might just do a blogpost about it later.

If you cannot wait that long the study has been published in Beier, Sofie & Larson, Kevin (2010), ‘Design Improvements for Frequently Misrecognized Letters’, Information Design Journal, 18(2), 118-137.

If you want to experience typefaces made for signage in its mileau and you are located in Denmark, look out for Via by brand- and typedesign agency Kontrapunkt which is made especially for DSB (the Danish railroads) and is said to have won over Helvetica; the typeface that DSB thought was the most legible typeface on the market until Kontrapunkt convinced them that they could beat it in this respect.

Another typeface is Signa by Ole Søndergaard, that can be found all over the country and more specifically Hillerød, where I have used it on my design for their tourist friendly signage.