The Fourth Wall

3.18.10 Sweatin’ the Small Stuff


My commute to work is short. Very short. About 1/2 mile in my car, a total of maybe 8 longish blocks with loads of hills. Yes, I should be walking but I’m always shlepping WAY too much stuff. Yes, I should reduce the amount of stuff in my life. Yes, I live/work in The People’s Republic of Takoma Park making all of this driving and stuff-shlepping very ironic, but that’s not the subject of this post.

I’m also a morning person, and at this time of day, well-caffeinated and hyper alert, I’m bound to find myself thinking hard about something, noticing things I might not otherwise, or having a wild creative idea or two or three. Pardon the pun, but today I was STOPPED in my tracks by the above image. Such a simple problem, thought I, a STOP sign cocked to an angle. Yet it looks so incredibly wrong; the entire landscape suddenly taking on a crooked through-the-looking-glass kind of feel.


Knowing you might not quite believe me, I shot an image of the Stop sign on the opposing corner of this 4-way. See? We are restored to balance again. But what does this mean? Is one of these Stop signs right and the other wrong? If so, why? What if I like a jaunty Stop sign... it is Takoma Park, after all! And the fact is, arguments could potentially be made for the effectiveness of either. One sign fits our expectations, but doesn’t the other really make us notice even more and isn’t that the point of a Stop sign? The whole scenario got me thinking about design, of course. About how the smallest decisions can add up to a very large impact on the viewer. Don’t get me wrong… designers sweat the big stuff too. I love to sink my design teeth into a conceptual problem, a messaging problem, or even a tough layout challenge. But I honestly get just as much pleasure from sweating the small stuff.


Font choices are arguably not at all a small aspect of design, but suppose we’ve made a (very good, imho) decision to use Helvetica on a city’s street signage. It’s a nice start. But within that font family there are oh so many choices. Medium, bold, light and black. Condensed, regular, italic. And now with these fancy schmancy computers we can even do MORE things to the type, squishing it, drop-shadowing, outlining. WHEEEEEEEE… so many choices! Above is the signage at an intersection I probably pass 50 times a week.


Remarkably, this intersection shows not only a plethora of type choices (weight, kern) but also editorial choices. Av? Ave.? Yes, I know… I’m sweatin’ the small stuff here.


Is one typography solution better than the other? Arguments could be made for both. If I had to choose, I believe the older sign, Tulip Av, is superior to the newer sign for Holly Ave. Tulip is kerned better (more on kerning later), fills the space better, and is simply more readable… the main design criterion here. Holly is too tightly kerned, is difficult to read, and although Ave. is more correct, the period seems fussy and unnecessary.


On the very next block over, Holly gets a type treatment that is all together different from the earlier version. Oh my, what to think about this?? The font size and choice is much better. Still tightly kerned, but this time there’s a reason… our designer has generously provided MUCH more information on this sign. Not only Ave with an E and no period, but the block number, 7300. I could write an essay on all of this, but I’ll spare you. Just noticing it is really enough for now, don’t you think?


So… what should the typographic standard be for consistent, readable street signage in Takoma Park? Above is the most egregious of the decisions made. Here, the word Dogwood has been horizontally scaled (that’s squished to you lay people), so that the block number information would fit! Consistent with its companion at the intersection? Yes. Hideous, and wrong, wrong, wrong? Yes, yes and yes!! No self-respecting designer EVER uses this feature of his/her software. Why? Because the design of fonts is one of the most careful, specific, and beautifully architectural things known to man woman. And b/c that’s why god type designers invented condensed versions.


Now, what is this thing called kerning? Kern is the space between letters of a word. Yes, the empty space. And it matters greatly with regard to both readability and aesthetic. Above, Barclay has a very open kern; compare this to Holly in the previous images. Which is more desirable?


Sigh. I love kerning. I love worrying and fretting over something so infinitesimal, something so obscure, yet so important to effective communication. The only thing I might love a little more than the act of kerning is my KERN sweatshirt, designed by Veer (just ask my family how sick they are of seeing me in this thing at home). Not only is the Kern sweatshirt a lovely reminder of a cherished aspect of my profession, but ingeniously… and humorously, it allows for an instant demonstration of the meaning of kern. Unzip… open kern… zip… close kern. Get it? Get it!

2 Responses to “Sweatin’ the Small Stuff”

  1. C.M. Mayo Says:

    Very fun post, thanks. It reminded me of a video on “Trajan” (the font) that had a bit about kerning that was really amusing.

  2. Jodi Says:

    Thanks so much for your comment! That post was just the tip of the kerning iceberg for me… :)

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