Posted by Chris on 23.08.2012

Over at Fast Company, there’s an interesting speculative design piece on reworking the US Highway sign system. Given just how ugly and unreliable this sort of information delivery currently is (and we’re no stranger to it in Australia), it presents a particularly compelling challenge for an information designer. Delicious!

The proposed solution, put together by San Francisco designers Manual for ICON Magazine, is essentially Oreo Cheesecake; conceptually delicious, but consumption proves it to be a terrible idea. Manual, who are really good graphic designers, appear to have fallen in to the same trap many really good graphic designers do when producing work for wayfinding systems.

It looks to me like they’ve attempted to make it beautiful, and then tried to get that to work. And that’s really not the way to go about it.

Let’s take cheesecake as an example. A baked New York cheesecake is a perfectly balanced combination of crunchy biscuit base, light and fluffy cream cheese, and a bit of lemon tang to round it out. You can eat a whole slice and still want more. Oreo cheesecake is a different ball game.

There’s chocolate, rich and dark, with a hint of salt, followed by a chocolate biscuit base. The cream cheese suddenly feels heavy, cloying, and the little bits of caramel just add to the sugar overload. Suddenly, each bite is a struggle, and you’re using the ice cream as palette cleanser. It’s too much.

An experienced dessert chef will be able to pull off the first cake and have it be amazing. A less experienced one will attempt the Oreo cake because it is super different from the baked cheesecake, and sounds amazing.

Manual are correct in their assessment that the current signs are “confusing, inconsistent and messy.” (Although they are incorrect in their lack of Oxford comma.) But their solution goes too far in the other direction.

Sure, there’s a nice grid. Everything is beautifully laid out. But they’ve focused so much on getting the layout nice they’ve missed a key step in the process. Imagine you’re not looking at this on your computer screen at 0kph, in perfect light and with no stress. Imagine that you have imperfect vision, it’s dark and you’re in unfamiliar territory. Now look at the sign again.

Manual's in situ example

The details are too small. The text (DIN in one example, Helvetic-alike in another) is simply not that legible on that background. Why not use Ralf Hermann’s excellent Wayfinding Sans, designed specifically for this sort of project?

But what does it actually mean? What the heck is “2V” or “2U”? Why are the lane guides so small? Why not use a physical break in the sign panel to create that difference?

Manual's signage redesign

Almost everything to do with the scale of the information presented is off. Look at the size of those green Bs! To which you probably ask “Which green B’s?” because they are that small. They’ve used a hairline to break up destinations!

To be fair, there’s some interesting ideas presented. Linking signage to a smartphone application is neat, and I’m very much a fan of using digital to display information that adds value, beyond a mere repetition. But here, again, more questions: how many people are actually going to use this? What value does the information give to travellers? And is the move of some essential information (such as distance to petrol) from physical to digital a detriment to some drivers?

Manual's smartphone applcation

My answers: very few, some and heck yes.

Yes, this is speculative work. And it is a tough assignment. But this is a redesign, not a re-think. If it were a re-think, they’d be asking bigger questions.

Here’s a few off the top of my head:

  1. Why retain the distinction between US highways and interstates? Do users actually care about this? Which ones?

  2. Do we actually need hardware? Or should we be transitioning to a digital solution?

  3. Are highway numbers really the best way to guide people to their destination?

And for bonus material, can I recommend (design podcast) Let’s Make Mistakes Episode 59, where they talk about cheesecake flavouring.

And to prove how excellent baked lemon cheesecake is, you should make this cake. Right now.