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The Toronto Typographic Charter

The City of Toronto has no coordination whatsoever in the typography of its public spaces, a domain that includes:

Typography in Toronto looks like it was haphazardly thrown together by nonexperts. It was. Toronto’s lack of planning makes it seem like anything goes. It does.

Toronto officially strives to become a Clean & Beautiful City. The clean part is straightforward, if laborious, to achieve. But beautiful? When it comes to typography, could we at least start with a plan and back it up with testing? Could we at least have a Clean & Functional Typography?

If you remove typography from public space, you create a city of illiterates. But what happens if you ignore typography in public space? You end up where we are today.

Some other cities that refuse to permit new developments without an independent architectural review. We may get our own review panel in the near future. Whether we do or do not, we need another panel concentrating on typography. A city does not consist of buildings, land, and people; it also consists of words, which need planning as much as everything else does.

If you find this proposition doubtful, ask yourself: Would you want every sign in Toronto typeset in Comic Sans? The unplanned and untested mishmash of typography we have now is actually worse. At least an all–Comic Sans approach would show that somebody bothered to set some rules.

If you find this proposition doubtful, you probably don’t think typography means anything. It’s just “print.” As long as you can read it yourself, you’re satisfied. But we aren’t building a city just for you, and nonexperts are the problem in the first place. If you don’t think typography is important, then leave it to people who do think it is. By the time we’re done, you’ll actually notice the difference.

With no system in place, public typography lacks credibility. Do they really mean that? “No system” means “no trust.” And it works both ways, because nonexperts do not trust design. They think it is mere decoration. They think design is the gift-wrapping and the bow around the Christmas present, even if the present is a chainsaw or a set of floor mats for the car. This is a problem in Canada generally, where you always have to justify design. Managers would always just prefer to use clip art or have their girl type something up. Everything has to look like the least competent person could have designed it, and probably did. Actually knowing what you’re doing is suspicious and possibly unmanly.

In Toronto, it’s even worse. If it were even there in the first place, design is allowed to survive a development process only by accident. Design in Toronto is the single cow that escapes the slaughterhouse. And if you think that couldn’t possibly be true because we host the Design Exchange and live in the only place in North America with a legally-recognized registry of graphic designers, take a look around you sometime.

Designers are not without blame. The typography of public space tends to be treated as a matter of style or brand differentiation, as though citizens have a choice of two cities simultaneously and it always has to be visibly apparent which one they’re in. Public typography is functional by nature, but designers never want to test their designs to prove they work. (Nondesigners dismiss design, but designers dismiss facts.)

And there is no interest, at all, in accessibility. If visually-impaired people can’t read a sign, well, we aren’t making it for them, are we? Nor are there any efforts to coordinate design among the many languages used in Toronto. In fact, the whole idea that different languages and writing systems could actually corordinate may be news to you.

Typography is not a frill that might be tacked on after the real work is done. Typography is the entire readable landscape of public space.

A new charter for the typography of public space

I call for a Toronto Typographic Charter based on a simple declaration:

The typography of Toronto’s public space deserves high standards and thorough testing


Actively design
Make sure the typography of public space is actively designed and not left as an afterthought
Have a master plan backed up by standards of performance for everyone, from developers to city planners to designers
Standardize and customize
Adopt what works from other places and invent new things that work here
Test everything. If it doesn’t work as well for a low-vision person walking in the nighttime rain as it does for the designer of the piece at high noon in June, fix it
Train the people who actually construct and install public typography. Turn a sign shop into a design shop
The city changes every year and so do type and technology. Review the plan and the true nature of public typography at regular intervals – and don’t be afraid to change the plan to match the new reality
Take down what isn’t working and replace it with what does
Build the cost of design and testing for typography into the budget


How do we make this happen?

Start a design panel concerned only with the typography of public space
Don’t stack the panel with old-guard designers, who are part of the problem; don’t stack it with public-space activists (Spacers); don’t stack it with anyone. The panel needs to consist of designers, architects, landscape architects, people with disabilities, activists, and citizens. Give the panel a veto over plans for city-owned typography. Require private developments fronting onto public space to submit their designs to the panel for review and comment
Divert money from advertising and marketing
Pay for this public process by spending less money on advertising and marketing (especially at the TTC, an organization that proves a high budget can produce atrocious advertising). Don’t be afraid to put some new money into the process; if the city can fund the Clean & Beautiful City Roundtable and a proposed panel for architectural review, it can fund this
Commission and test Toronto-specific fonts
We need two categories of type – one for signage and wayfinding, another for print and other uses. This is a city that can’t even make a no-brainer decision on the typefaces to use on streetsigns, fonts actually designed for signage or any old font at all. We need to start over

Updates and discussion

This document is intended to get the ball rolling. It isn’t an invitation for any Toronto design firm (especially not Kramer), or the TTC, or the Registry of Graphic Designers of Ontario, or the city, or the Spacers to take over the idea. It is an invitation to begin a discussion.

I’ll have more details, with precedents and lots of pictures, will appear on my Weblog and on Flickr. (Those categories may initially be empty.)

Posted: 2006.11.13

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