The surprisingly bitter controversy over American highway fonts
The Federal Highway Administration has rescinded its approval for the use of an alternative roadside typeface called Clearview, once again making the 70-year-old Highway Gothic typeface the single standard for directional signage.
If you haven't been following the American highway roadside sign beat these past few months, it's entirely possible you've missed what's shaped up to be quite the design controversy. Here are the basic facts:
The Federal Highway Administration has rescinded its approval for the use of an alternative roadside typeface called Clearview, ten years after granting provisional approval for its use. This means the 70-year-old Highway Gothic typeface most commonly seen on directional signage will remain the single standard from here on out.
Signs sporting the now-defunct typeface will remain standing for now, though when it comes time to replace them, the type will revert back to Highway Gothic.
It's a shocking end for Clearview, a typeface specifically designed to improve on Highway Gothic, and once lauded as “a beautiful example of design as a form of social activism."
So, what happened?
When it was approved in 2004, Clearview was backed by scientific research that suggested it offered superior readability, especially at night:
“In 1997, Penn State researchers subjected Clearview to a range of legibility tests. The results were unambiguously positive, showing that Clearview increased nighttime reading distance by as much as 16 percent. In 2001, a team led by Texas A&M transportation researcher Paul Carlson independently confirmed that Clearview improved the recognition distance of highway signs by as much as 12 percent, a difference of 74 feet over Highway Gothic." (Wired)
You can compare the two for yourself. Here's Clearview:
Image source: Meeker and Associates
And here's Highway Gothic:
Image source: Meeker and Associates
You'll no doubt notice some subtle differences in the shape, spacing, and alignment of certain letters, especially the lowercase e. People who know a lot more than most about road sign font design stress that Clearview's minor tweaks improve readability. Just ask the guy who helped create it:
Helen Keller can tell you from the grave that Clearview looks better. — Clearview co-creator Donald Meeker, perhaps hyperbolically
But the scientific community over the past ten years hasn't been as kind to Clearview. Various research since 2004 suggests the improvements attributed to the new typeface may have been correlational rather than causal. New sign materials introduced in 2003 were found to be the main factor in improving readability at night. Additional research seemed to indicate that Clearview's readability benefits were lost on signs with varying color patterns, in particular dark type on a white background.
You might be able to say that the jury is out on whether Clearview is truly superior to Highway Gothic. Additional research would probably shine a keener light on the matter.
So why did the Highway Administration preemptively choose to put the kibosh on Clearview rather than wait to see if improvements could be made?
"Jurisdictions that adopt Clearview must purchase a standard license for type, a one-time charge of between $175 (for one font) and $795 (for the full 13-font typeface family) and up, depending on the number of workstations."
If you're of the opinion that there is no practical difference between Highway Gothic and Clearview, then the one you can use for free is the obvious choice. Whether or not that's the case -- well, it might not matter anymore.
Robert Montenegro is a writer and dramaturg who regularly contributes to Big Think and Crooked Scoreboard. He lives in Washington DC and is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?
- Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
- Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
- A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses
Dramatic and misleading
Image: Reddit / SICResearch
The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.
Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.
The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.
Let's zoom in:
- It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
- By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
- Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
- In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
- Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
- By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.
Image source: Reddit / SICResearch
This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?
- "The end is near."
- "The idiocracy grows."
- "(It's) like a spreading disease."
- "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
- "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
- "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
- "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
- "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."
Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:
- "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
- "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
- "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
- "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."
"Old people learning to Google"
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)
But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:
- "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
- "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
- "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
- "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."
A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.
The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.
One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.
Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.
It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.
CNN, Fox and MSNBC
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison
For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):
- Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
- MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
- CNN: 706,000 (-9%)
And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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