When Typography Is A Matter Of Life And Death

Typography is the stylization of lettering used to convey messages in everything from billboards to consumer products. Literally everything that doesn’t rely strictly on visual imagery to communicate a message uses typography in some form. But what about when the messages you are trying to communicate that are quietly literally a matter of life and death. Messages about extreme weather, street signage warning of a train crossing or even communicating the risks of side effects or diseases on packaging like cigarettes and medications. Typography plays an extremely important role in communication that can save a life.

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Different Font Seriffs

Image: Makesigns

Recently, an announcement made by he National Weather Service promised that beginning May 11th, it would stop publishing all of its future forecasts and weather warnings in ALL CAPS. This victory and move into the 21st century would be a step up and a stiff departure from the days (beginning in the 1800’s) when everything was written in all CAPS. For over a century that was all technology was really capable of doing. Now, however, all caps conveys a message of indistinguishability whereas using caps sparingly allows for messages to be correctly emphasised.

As Visual Explanations explains, “When nothing stands out, people are likely to miss real emergencies.” Today, when a message written in all CAPS, it conveys a different message that leaves most of us wondering, “WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS SHOUTING AT ME?”

A look at the difference of how a message relayed from the weather service would look:

Weather Service Alert

Image: National Weather Service

When a message is meant to be conveyed ambiguously then ALL CAPS is a perfect solution. A good example of this strategy at work might be the surgeon generals warning on the side of a pack cigarettes. Take a look here at how by using ALL CAPS, they were able to hide their ominous warning in plain site.

Warning Label On Cigarette Boxes

Image: Visual Explanations / ProPublica

Since 1984, cigarette manufacturers like Phillip Morris have been required to include a “SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING” in all CAPS. But that changed in 2009, when President Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention And Tobacco Control And Federal Retirement Reform bill into law. The new law would have required all warning labels to be larger, along with vivid graphics, however, the deep pockets of the  tobacco industry have been keeping these changes from taking effect to this day.

Surgeon Generals Warning

Image: The Atlantic

We can generally thank the enigma of using “ALL CAPS” because it has always been the easiest way to create emphasis while using a typewriter.

Another common typographic style usage that we all are deeply familiar with is on our roadways, highways, and byways. Since the 1950’s up until the early 2000’s, all U.S. road signs have stuck to a frighteningly familiar typeface called Highway Gothic. The problem with the Highway Gothic typeface was that during bad weather, from far distances, and when light from headlights hit the words they tended to blurrily blend together. This issues was annoying for most, but could be deadly for those with bad eyes or old age. The problem can be seen on the left of this image:

Street Sign Typography

Image: Terminal Design, Inc.

Looking for a way to remedy this problem, highway engineers searched tirelessly for a solution. They considered enlarging the typeface but realized that might be disastrously expensive. Stumped at how exactly to solve the problem, the engineers reached out to both an environmental graphic designer and a type designer. The solution they came up with was a brand new typeface based on the old that was much clearer to read. The typeface they created they called “Clearview,” and can be seen above on the right of the image.

The wider typesetting along with serifs to make certain letters more distinct many saw the new typeface as a success. It wasn’t long before cities across the country began adopting the new typeface for their own highway signs.

When bad typography makes it’s way in front of the eyes of the general public, the results may impact a brand or product and the problems that it causes are in illegibility or aesthetic in nature. But like we’ve discussed, bad typography in it’s most extreme forms can actually kill.

Article: The Atlantic