The city recently announced that it will be selling off its decommissioned street signs next year. At $100 a pop (to start), the “acorn” signs may be cool collector’s items, but they weren’t so great in terms of readability. We asked Frederick Jon Burbach, associate professor of communication design at OCAD University, to weigh in on how well these and other city typefaces serve their purpose.
Old “acorn” street signs (pictured above)
Font: Unknown origin, though similar signs can be found in Vancouver.
History: The signs have their own Facebook page with 1,000 members.
Burbach’s font rating (out of 5): 2
“[The font] preserves the character of certain neighbourhoods, especially on small streets where big signage is not needed. Otherwise, it’s very difficult to read as the characters are all the same size.”
History: Developed in 1992 by Meeker & Associates. The City of Toronto chose the font in 2001 for its accessibility and legibility.
Burbach’s font rating (out of 5): 3
“It’s a clear, understandable font. It’s good for typoglycemia [the mind’s ability to decipher a misspelled word if the first and last letters are correct]. I don’t think you need to shorten ‘road’ or ‘avenue’ and make it superscript—it would be easier to read at the same size.”
New street signs
History: The city commissioned Kramer Design Associates to design new, uniform signs in 2007, which were installed in 2008.
Burbach’s font rating (out of 5): 4
“It’s easy to read; useful for both people walking and driving. The dark blue contrasts with the white text much better than the light-blue background on the rectangular road signs.”
City’s corporate-branding font
Font: Univers Condensed
Origin: Designed by Adrian Frutiger in Switzerland in 1954.
History: Since 1999, Univers Condensed has been the city’s corporate font, used on all building, office, park, and community centre signs.
Burbach’s font rating (out of 5): 5
“Along with Helvetica, it’s the logical conclusion of sans-serif. It’s neutral, clear, and easy to read. The letters have a regular weight and don’t take up too much space.”
Toronto subway font
Font: Toronto Subway (trademarked)
History: The font was developed when the subway opened in 1954. The source, however, is unknown.
Burbach’s font rating (out of 5): 2.5
“The TTC generally does not have good signage, the platform font included. The letter proportion is not homogeneous: The ‘B’ is broad, the ‘D’ is narrow, the ‘G’ is based on a circle like an ‘O,’ the ‘Q’ has an arbitrary stick, and the ‘R’ is a friggin’ joke. The font was probably designed between 1920 and 1935, when using uneven proportions was commonplace.”
Toronto Public Library branch information (not including the TPL logo)
Font: Gill Sans
History: The logo and branch font are part of the library’s visual identity, which a graphic design consultant developed shortly after amalgamation, around 2003.
Burbach’s font rating (out of 5): 0
“It’s wonderfully horrible. The spacing is awful—it’s too arbitrary. The words are hard to see from the street because the letters are small and have similar elements. The font is appropriate for 1930s, but now looks old and out of touch.”