FOR COMMUTERS rushing to and from the Back Bay T station, there’s nothing remarkable about the green and white street sign at the intersection of Columbus Avenue and Clarendon Street. It gets its job done, informing passersby where they are, and in which direction the two roads run. And yet it could do more: It could, through elegant or distinctive lettering, define the look of Boston - or so an anonymous tipster pointed out this week, in an uploaded complaint sent to Citizens Connect, the City Hall service.
Under the headline “Damaged Sign,’’ the complainant lodged a font-based critique: The characters spelling out “Columbus Ave’’ “just don’t look right.’’ Instead of the blocky, uppercase text used on most every other street sign across the city, the offending sign was printed in rounded letters, in a typeface called Clearview, and only the first letter was capitalized. Just compare the intersection’s signs and the problem is obvious: Pointing in one direction, the all-caps “CLARENDON ST’’ is bold, assertive, and stately - the image Boston likes to project. Running perpendicularly, “C olumb us Ave,’’ is diminutive and twee, with characters printed in varying thicknesses and spacing, and on a slant.
Typophiles at the blog Universal Hub noted that the change corresponds with a nationwide movement: At the advice of the federal government, some municipalities have been replacing existing road signs with new ones printed in the Clearview typeface. The switch isn’t about beauty, but public safety. In studies conducted by the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute, drivers more quickly deciphered words printed in Clearview - first letter in uppercase, the rest in lowercase - than words in traditional road-sign type. Clearview significantly decreased the time drivers spent looking away from the road and, as a result, the likelihood of accidents.
Ultimately, though, the switch to Clearview on Columbus Avenue was just a mistake. Boston isn’t changing its fonts, said transportation department spokesman Jim Mansfield, because it’s costly, and the city’s signs, “are very visible as they are.’’ That’s good news for a city already suffering from a font identity crisis. From New York in the ‘30s to the Paris of the Belle Epoque, public lettering defined not only a look but an aesthetic. Boston may one day move beyond its block-lettered past, but at least it’s not adopting a generic form of signage.