Graphic Design at 70 M.P.H.

In case you missed it, there was a really terrific piece in yesterday᾿s New York Times Magazine called “The Road to Clarity.” Ostensibly a report on how the Federal Highway Administration is transitioning Interstate highway signage away from the typeface Highway Gothic and to the better optimized Clearview, its writer, Joshua Yaffa, manages to elegantly transition the angle of this article into an excellent primer on the nuances and importance graphic design. It’s actually quite slyly done.


Secret Lessons

Of course, there’s a little bit of that “Who’d have guessed it, but did you know there’s an art and a craft to typefaces?” sentiment, the sort with which arcane trades are often exposed to the general public. But Yaffa pulls it off quite gracefully:

“Less than a generation ago, fonts were for the specialist, an esoteric pursuit, what Stanley Morison, the English typographer who helped create Times New Roman in the 1930s, called ‘a minor technicality of civilized life.’ Now, as the idea of branding has claimed a central role in American life, so, too, has the importance and understanding of type. Fonts are image, and image is modern America.”

Nicely said, right? What I like so much about this piece is that, almost furtively, Yaffa has slipped in a truly excellent overview of the principles of graphic design and a surprisingly detailed lesson on the finer points of typography. To see that kind of smart overview inside a general interest magazine is a healthy sign for the trade.

Short on Design

You can read the full article over at NYTimes.com of course, but this is one of many instances in which our Web version utterly fails the presentation of the content. The online article, while put together with care by one of our online edit staffers (especially in the handy in-line, clickable timeline), just doesn’t have the visual panache of its printed counterpart.

Right now, we just haven’t got the tools or the infrastructure to do justice to the beautiful work done by Magazine art director Rem Duplessis and his staff — nor for any art directors at the newspaper, for example. By and large, I fully believe we deliver great content in a great package — we make the news in as useful and elegant a digital manner as anyone — but I admit we often fall short of the aesthetic bar set by our counterparts in print.

Which isn’t to say that the goal of NYTimes.com should be to fully emulate the layout of the printed paper. To the contrary: in the vast majority of instances, that should not be the strategy. I don’t believe in one design for every medium; I’m more of the school that content should be designed appropriate to each medium. Still, it would have been nice if we could have done something for this article that was remotely as attractive as these pages.

New York Times Magazine, Sun 12 Aug 2007, Pages 36 and 37
New York Times Magazine, Sun 12 Aug 2007, Pages 38 and 39
New York Times Magazine, Sun 12 Aug 2007, Pages 40 and 41
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  1. I thought this was a wonderful article. When I read the line, “fonts are image, and image is modern America”, I knew this would be something special.

    It was done with such enthusiasm that I titled my post about it, “Fonts Are the New Black“.

    I particularly liked how he used the development of the new font as a point of departure to discuss design and typography in general.

    Just excellent.

  2. It’s a great article, indeed! Thanks, Khoi, for pointing out the great design of the print version of the piece–I’ll be heading to the library to check out all of those graphics.

    A question about the online version: There the first sentence of the article reads, “‘So, what do you see?’ Martin Pietrucha I asked, turning around in the driver’s seat of his mint green Ford Taurus.” It looks like that I after Martin’s name is an errant artifact from the print version–it’s hard to make out from your screenshots, but maybe it’s supposed to be a call out to the professor’s portrait…?

  3. Wonderful article. Is it normal for me to have been giddy, smiling, and laughing while reading it?

    My favorite line was “Signs that you’d be hard pressed to read at 700 feet were legible at 900 or 1,000 feet,” Montalbano said. “People were really freaked out”.

    I wish the font was less than $795 though. Maybe in the future it will be included as standard in word processing software.

  4. Tor: It flows better. Typeface is only used by enthusiasts while font is used by the general public (due to word processors). The lower formalism and shorter length combine to give it more punch than it’d have if typeface were used. Since it’s the article’s hook to keep the reader engaged, punch is good.

    Khoi: Not having time to read the actual article at work, I just checked out the pics in the multimedia section. I know what they’re demonstrating, but for someone who isn’t versed in typography, having those images inline with the explanations in the article (assuming there are explanations) would improve both. Is the lack of inline images an artistic/design decision or a technical limitation?

  5. Rick: For a while the national speed limit in the U.S. was 55 mph (hence the Sammy Hagar song), but some time in the 80s or early 90s they changed the laws and left it up to the states. Nowadays most highways have speed limits of 65-70 mph.

  6. To be quite honest, I would have read past the 1st page had the online article been as engaging as the actual print piece.

  7. Right now, we just haven’t got the tools or the infrastructure to do justice to the beautiful work done by Magazine art director Rem Duplessis and his staff — nor for any art directors at the newspaper, for example. By and large, I fully believe we deliver great content in a great package — we make the news in as useful and elegant a digital manner as anyone — but I admit we often fall short of the aesthetic bar set by our counterparts in print.

    To tie this in with another recent post here at Subtraction: this delima is, largely, the reason we created the CSS grids framework that eventually became a core peice of Blueprint.

    In the newspaper world, special sections and feature stories often have to go from nothing to live in a matter of hours. This is why we’ve built CMSes and templating systems. They allow for very quick posting of stories in one of a few “master” story templates. This works fine, but often at the cost of not giving the story the design attention it deserves.

    The grid CSS framework was built to solve exactly this issue. By establishing a grid to use site-wide upfront, we were able to very quickly create interesting layouts that were story-appropriate when one of these thigns came along, rather than simple flowing them into the same template every other story used.

    Even still, we couldn’t approach what our print counterparts did, but it was a start — and it definitely made me personally feel better about our ability to design to the content.

  8. Beautiful! Germany is going in the same process too.

    I think the best way to view the print version — especially for non-US citizen, which I am — is to subscribe to the electronic edition. I’d gladly pay for such a great work.

  9. Why post a link to pirate design at the suspicious-looking MyFonts.com, when the Federal Highway Administration has its own site? Excellent preview, too: FHWA Fonts

  10. Khoi, how can I obtain a pdf copy? I’d like to use it in my Typography class that I teach at the community college where I work. Any help would be great. Thanks.

  11. I also would love to have a hardcopy for teaching purposes. I had a NY Magazine in my paws but someone stole it off my desk at work. Ahhhh. Please let me know if there is anyway to get a hold of one.

  12. @ Rжgis Kuckaertz

    You know that the article you linked is an April joke, making no (more or less) sense at all?