A Long Post on a Short Subject

Let’s start with the news, which both the NY Post and the Daily News saw fit to fuss over yesterday. We’ll go with Rupert this round, because we like his photo better:

Federal copy editors are demanding the city change its 250,900 street signs — such as these for Perry Avenue in The Bronx — from the all-caps style used for more than a century to ones that capitalize only the first letters.

Changing BROADWAY to Broadway will save lives, the Federal Highway Administration contends in its updated Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, citing improved readability.

At $110 per sign, it will also cost the state $27.6 million, city officials said.

The Post story is actually quite calm, compared to its rival:

Still, several city residents were OUTRAGED.

“That’s ridiculous,” said James Sullivan, 34, a bike messenger from Queens. “They might as well just burn the damn money.”

Construction worker Joseph Cain, 49, of Manhattan, reacted with sarcasm, saying, “I see my tax dollars are hard at work.”

As it happens, the news isn’t new — the FHA passed the new rules in 2003. For that matter, local governments have until 2018 to comply — and since NYC replaces 8,000 signs annually anyway, it’s not clear that the requirement adds anything to budgets.

But, back at Rupert’s story, here’s what really caught our attention:

Studies have shown that it is harder to read all-caps signs, and those extra milliseconds spent staring away from the road have been shown to increase the likelihood of accidents, particularly among older drivers, federal documents say.

We did a fair amount of radio in one of our past lives, and one thing we never understood was the habit of typing news copy in ALL CAPS. We don’t know whether it was a carryover from newswire printouts, BUT NOT ONLY DOES IT SEEM LIKE THE AP IS SHOUTING THE WEATHER FORECAST AT YOU, IT’S DAMN HARD TO READ WHEN IT CONTINUES FOR A COUPLE HUNDRED WORDS.

Why is this? Visual familiarity: We don’t read letters — we read words. And, over time, we get so good at it that we read the shapes of words. All those ascenders and descenders give words a character that’s lost when they’re overly standardized. Our hunch is that the familiarity is also what makes typos so easy to overlook: the shape’s close enough to get the communicative job done.

Which brings us to that photo: Seemingly contrary to what we just said, PERRY is actually easier to read than Perry. Part of the problem is that the lower sign doesn’t say Perry but P e r r y, which defeats the purpose of familiarity — we don’t typically read words s p a c e d o u t like that.

But the intersection near Stinque World Domination Headquarters also has one sign in caps, the other lower-case — and as we walked toward them yesterday afternoon, we definitely found the caps sign much easier to read at a distance, even though the other is kerned properly.

We don’t have a major traffic study to back us up, however, and your anecdotal evidence may vary. But here’s our hunch: text on highway signs, and the green backlit signs often found above traffic lights at major intersections, is much better in lower-case. But the smaller signs on streetcorners? If it takes us a second more to figure them out as we’re driving past, that’s defeating the purpose.

A note to our readers: The author was seriously disturbed by Thursday’s thunderstorms in San Diego, and appears to think he’s writing for Andy Rooney, or worse, NPR. We apologize for any outbreak of somnambulance among our patrons.

$27 million to change NYC signs from all-caps [NY Post]

New Yorkers outraged as bureaucrats order city to change lettering on every single street sign [Daily News]


Spending a few million dollars is a tragedy, wasting many billions is a statistic.

This is what always makes me laugh about wingnuts freaking out about spending. I get annoyed when I read about the gubbiment wasting money, but the wingnuts freak out about chickenshit and ignore bigger losses. 27 million is a lot to a individual, but not a city the size of NYC. Yet I’ve never seen the NYP or NYDNY utter word one about say losing billions in Iraqinam during the competent and not stupid Brenmer era when an ice cream truck driver (whose daddy was a powerful GOPer and fundie) helped design the Iraqi stock market.

At last we’ve identified the underlying cause of our tens of thousands of highway fatalities every year. Since everybody driving a car is presumably busy texting or staring at their GPS I don’t know if there’s a need for street signs any more.

Did the idea of projecting a television screen on the windshield go away forever or is that an option you can order?

@Dave H: You mean, I can watch football while driving on the freeway on a rainy night? Where do I sign up?

My sister used to read books while driving on interstates, not of course near conurbations, still, as my mother-in-law opined on hearing of this practice, “you might not learn how the story turns out.”

@lynnlightfoot: I’ll take words about high density populations for 500, Alex.
@Dave H: @Dodgerblue: My son and I decided that it is not too far off before the technology that brought us the iPhad and iPhon will also put touch screen windscreens in our pick ’em up trucks.

@Nojo: one thing we never understood was the habit of typing news copy in ALL CAPS. I loved the teletype machine when I was doing college radio. Considering that most of my shows were in the Midnight to 2AM slot, reading BREAKING NEWS was like shouting into the wind. Except when the Pope was shot; I was on air when that came over the wire, and I managed to somehow make an unmemorable joke that lit up the phone lines.

Which come to think of it is pretty much the Rupert Media Model.

Nojo, you must have heard my cry for help earlier this week that I’m out of my depth with all these cooking and automotive and Sport discussions, so you bring me not one but TWO posts about typos and typefaces and similarly editorial wonkiness–bless you.

You’re right that all caps impedes readability when used for more than two or three words. But it gives emphasis (or in the grating lingo used all too often around my office, “pop”) in small doses. So it makes sense for street signs, because god knows you want that text to pop. For our pubs, my rule of thumb is all caps is fine for short punchy headline or the first word or two of a violator that’s supposed to jump out at you, but not okay for main body text, captions, or even the “call to action” copy at the bottom (e.g. Call xxxx today to receive a free first aid kit!). Because you’re supposed to, you know, read that stuff.

And although it’s kind of tangentially related, this post reminds me of the linguistic trick of raednig scmbleard txet wouthit porbelm as lnog as the frist and lsat ltteres are in the rghit pclae. Which speaks to the ascender and descender cues you mentioned. Does this trick work less well in call caps then?

@flippin eck: Your scrambled text is easier to read than Benedict’s Scottish.

@flippin eck: Could you please perform a service for the English-speaking world and eliminate the use of “vibrant” as an adjective except when describing sex toys?

Thank you.

Studies have already shown that when texting while driving is banned, accidents increase, because people still text, but they have to hide the phone, and they hold it lower, and this keeps their eyes off the road for longer periods of time. When its legal, they can hold it up in front of the windshield like its a heads up display. Really, you don’t look at it more than you do at the speedometer or the rear-view, both of which are “distractions” we are encouraged to view.

I see commuters reading newspapers all the time. Its possible to be really good at something. The mediocre always assume everyone is as incompetent as they are.

I am having to learn some publishing, because my employer is too cheap to use a pro, and everyone else around here still uses courier.

I be writing a small reference-training volume, its going to come to about 90 pages of 8.5 by 11 single spaced, some illustrations and pdfs, I am gonna print it as a folded, stapled in the center 8.5 b 11 pamphlet (what are those called?

I am planning double columned, with a footer with logo , I want to make sure I break up the pages, some variation, not all solid with words everywhere and stuff.
What are some good fonts?

Had to weigh in from work on this one – road signs in Britain are done initial cap only for safety – they figured this out in the 50s.

@Prommie: Courier is a space hog. Try Arial. It’s nice and compact and reproduces well. I use Verdana in my pleadings and correspondence because (a) Times New Roman sucks and faxes/photocopies like shit and (b) the partner I was an associate to used it for our stuff (c) have been using it since 1995 or so anyway.

@Prommie: People who think this way scare me. Everyone is dangerously distracted when they attempt to read, text, eat, apply makeup, do the crossword, etc. behind the wheel…even if they think they’re not. When you’re piloting a 4,000-pound steel missile along at 80 mph, the least you can do for the safety of yourself and others is pay attention.

In other news, the complete lack of self-awareness of the fundies continues unabated, much to our amusement.

@flippin eck: OMG. Not to mention the big hair and false eyelashes.

@Prommie: Arial 11 point font is more readable and takes up less space than 12 point TNR.

Also, check out this [free!] how to guide called “Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes” – it has saved me so many times. I’ve received compliments on numerous Power Point presentations I’ve designed using their tips.

@redmanlaw: @SanFranLefty: Thank youse guys. I was joking about the courier, I was suggesting they still used a selectric.

I did stumble on the arial, it looked most like the font in an example I was trying to imitate, thanks for the link, SFL.

BTW, on the printing thing: don’t overlook services like Lulu.com. The results are great (I’ve got a couple tech books from there, basically indistinguishable from “real” books) and the prices are reasonable – for a 90 page book like yours, less than $10/copy, no minimum quantity.

@flippin eck:
I call Rule 34 on that cover. ;)

Oh, and Rick “Dirty” Sanchez starts working on his Fox Nooz audition reel. I mean, no sane person would say that on the air unless he’d already packed up his desk, right?

@Prommie: Depending on mood, I usually use either Arial (all the sans-serif type here), or Georgia (you’re soaking in it!).

Georgia seems to look a lot better on the Mac than Windows, however. Then again, everything does.

But that’s all for Web stuff. Offline, I have a few hundred more choices.

@Prommie: We use Palatino for our catalogues and brochures, which are all printed in double column format. I find Arial hard to read in a print document, though it’s fine onscreen.

@Mistress Cynica: The University of Oregon used Palatino for years, because it was one of the original Laserwriter fonts. Then they switched to Melior, which meant that every office on campus had to buy a copy.

(Well, technically the UO “site-licensed” the font. But still.)

@SanFranLefty: If I ever come to power, my first act will be to round up and execute all those responsible for the invention of PowerPoint. It has damaged us all.

@blogenfreude: Darling. (To quote Benedick/Snorri on this). Do. Not. Get. Me. Started. On. PowerPoint.

Yes, I feel the need to have a full-stop between every word.

Satan created PowerPoint.

Add a Comment
Please log in to post a comment