Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Submission to Public Works and Infrastructure Committee, 2007.02.14

(Also available as tagged PDF.)

Transportation Dept. staff are eager for your committee to rubber-stamp a new design for streetsigns. But the design has not been tested to prove it works in the real world, as in the following scenarios:

Transportation Dept. staff speak all but exclusively about the appearance of the signs, which may be of interest but is not important. Function is important.


I work in the field of accessibility for people with disabilities (media, not buildings – I wrote a book on Web accessibility, for example). I have a 25-year interest in typography, which includes a body of published articles and presentations. I am not really in any field of endeavour that could vie for or receive a contract from the City of Toronto concerning streetsigns. I am merely an informed outside observer.

For those new to signage, Clearview is a family of typefaces (not just one) that was developed for U.S. highway signage over a period of ten years. Some Clearview variations have been subject to extensive field testing and have usually been shown to be more readable and provide better performance than other fonts. Clearview is the font used in new black-on-white and white-on-blue Toronto streetsigns and on large signs attached to light standards at major intersections (the “blue Clearview” signs).


Here’s what’s been happening on the streetsign file:

  1. Kramer Design Associates won a contract to design a candidate replacement for current streetsigns. Some homeowners and a few commenters on blogs (like Spacing) dislike the City’s own newer streetsign design, often for debatable reasons. Kramer’s candidate design was shown at four public meetings in 2006.
  2. Those meetings may have been a useful method to gauge how many attendees – not Torontonians as a whole – like or dislike the design. But that’s all it tells us, and whether or not individual people like the design is not actually important.
  3. For functional typography like signage, what actually matters is how well it works. And the only way to establish that is through testing.
  4. I asked Jeremy Kramer directly if any testing had been done. Not only was the answer no, he defensively implied that testing isn’t even necessary. I was later informed that Kramer Design tacked up a few candidate signs on poles near its office, which Kramer Design and city staff looked at and liked. That’s the extent of the testing regimen the Transportation Dept. wants to propose for the largest city in the country.
  5. Toronto already has a history of testing streetsigns. Blue Clearview signs were tested and shown to improve driver response times compared to the tiny all-upper-case signs they would replace. (Alison Smiley et al., “Required letter height for street-name signs: An on-road study,” Human Factors North Paper Nº 01-2225, 2001.) Yet city staff see no reason to test a design that might be replicated on 60,000 signs.
  6. I had a meeting with Transportation staff in November 2006 in which I asked, again directly, about plans for testing. There were none.
  7. I also handed staff an information request, and followed up with E-mails and a letter. There was no response to any of the foregoing.
  8. I complained to Gary Welsh, head of Transportation, again with no response.
  9. Curiously, one day after I complained to the chair of this committee, I received an E-mail stating that the proposed signs’ font had been changed to Clearview and that, given the city’s experience with Clearview thus far, the new design should work out fine. But those old signs weren’t tested either.
  10. Kramer Design is a firm heavily favoured by City of Toronto staff. The City’s own signs, which the Kramer design will replace, were thrown together in-house. Staff consider it a bother to have to deal with any complaints at all about something so trivial as streetsigns.
  11. Staff and Kramer Design want to rush through the candidate design as quickly as possible. The four public consultations were meant not only to actually consult the public but to insulate the entire process from later criticism. (Staff could attend a meeting of your committee and say “We met with the public and X% liked the design.” What people like isn’t the issue.)

Deficiencies in staff report

The Transportation Dept.’s staff report of 2007.01.10, “Street-Name Signage Program” (PDF), makes a range of unproven or false assertions.

  1. There is a stated concern for “legibility,” but no testing data are provided to prove the candidate design really is legible. It’s the opinion of Kramer Design and city staff that the signs are legible, but those opinions are unimportant and meaningless without empirical research. Page 4 notes that “[t]he principal objective… is the clear and legible identification of streets and intersections,” but actions speak louder than words here and it is clear that Transportation Dept. staff think the principal objective is to get this project done and over with as quickly as possible.
  2. The section on BIA branding (page 7) lays bare the actual interests of city staff, which are, in order, “first, street-name signs [must] have a homogeneous look…[;] second, ensure that street-name signs are commensurate with the beautification of… streets[;] and third, improve… functionality.” If we were to believe city staff, it’s all about what people think looks nice. It isn’t: It’s all about what performs well.
  3. Page 4 of the report claims that “the project team considered… [a] review of the experience with the font style, mix of upper- and lower-case letters, size, and reflectivity… gained in the manufacture and installation” of previous signs. “Experience” doesn’t mean “testing”; it means “opinions.”
  4. The candidate design uses brushed-aluminum panels on upper and lower thirds. The addition of up to 120,000 mirrorized surfaces to city streets cannot possibly be contemplated without full testing, including testing in summertime at dawn and dusk when reflections are most likely to occur. I repeat: City staff propose installing mirrors on every streetsign without testing.
  5. City staff actively falsify part of the record of public comments on the new design. I attended the seminar at Metro Hall on 2006.09.26 and am one of the few people who took notes (and the only person to publish them). Nobody at the meeting voiced any support for the new design, and at least one BIA representative tried several times to ask if it were possible to pay to retain the existing signs. I later asked for the results of the city’s online poll and was ignored. To the list of assertions that city staff cannot prove, we may add the claim that members of the public like the sign design. At any rate, liking or disliking it is unimportant compared to actual testing in the field.
  6. Examples shown in the report conveniently depict very short street names. Some street names in Toronto use nearly 30 characters (e.g., Colonel Samuel Smith Pk. Dr.), but only the tidiest and most compact names are shown, the longest being Hammersmith Ave. (15 characters). At least 27 street names in Toronto run over 19 characters.
  7. The report requires the use of confusing abbreviations (Cr and Ct are easy to confuse) and unnecessary ones (Wy is harder to understand than Way).
  8. The report’s appended “City of Toronto Street-Signage Program Standards Manual” does not even use the right fonts in its own text and does not provide any warnings to sign manufacturers not to deviate from the specified design. The blue Clearview signs have been criticized by a codesigner of Clearview because they use nonstandard letterspacing and have a border; similar deviations would be possible under the terms of the proposed signage manual.
  9. The report proposes to sell off old signs to the public, but city staff refuse to answer a question I have posed in person twice: What happened to the many blue or yellow illuminated box signs that used to be in place on city streets? (They’re rare now, but some are still in place right outside City Hall at Queen and Bay.)

Requested remedies

  1. Instruct city staff to develop, devise a realistic budget for, and bring to the committee for approval a testing protocol for the candidate sign design.
  2. Answer my information requests.
  3. Explain what happened to the blue and yellow illuminated box signs.

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