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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Toronto’s street signs

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In the Winter 2006 issue of Spacing, I wrote about the new street signs that the City is implementing. Here’s an excerpt:

There are some good things about the new design: the signs are much more visible, due to a larger and new reflective surface that aids the failing eyesight of our aging population; the use of upper- and lower-case letters makes street names much easier to read; and the colours used for each of the old Metro cities will stay in place.

But there are some glaring problems, too. While the new signs mimic the old designs, they look like cheap knockoffs — they remind some of cardboard cutouts, which are bereft of any kind of sophistication.

Another problem has been the lack of communication with the city’s heritage groups…. When this initiative began, the signs were not being archived or given to local residents, community groups, or businesses. Instead, the materials were being recycled… or sold for scrap.

Residents have had almost two years to come to any conclusions about our new wayfinders. I’d like to know what Spacing Wire readers think of these things. (PS: It looks like the Toronto Archives are finally receiving old signs that are deemed salvageable).

photo by Rami Tabello



  1. The signs in the photo are new new signs. The old new signs were two pieces of metal kept together with exposed bolts. The new new signs are a much improved design and do away with the exposed bolts, although they are not quite as cool as the old old 3D embossed signs, which were manufactured where the IGA at Dupont and Shaw is currently located, in case anyone is interested.

  2. If there was a process for obtaining the old signs I would have grabbed a Dowling Avenue. It could have raised money for some worthy project but I suppose the scrappers pay well these days.

    As a driver still becoming familiar with the city, I hate the old signs – you end up peering at them even when quite close whereas the new ones I find it easier (and of course safer) to be sure of where I need to turn, especially near where I live in East York where blocks are narrow.

    That’s not to say bigger is necessarily better so signs should be monster sized – just a preference for “this much bigger”.

  3. the larger type is a great idea but what happened to the cast iron framing, to the embossed lettering, to the charm?

    why does the city always need to ‘change’ or ‘update’ good designs? that’s how cities loose their histories. you can cut corners and produce cheap signs that look like these cut-outs and perhaps save money, but you’ll lose all soul in the process. what a shame.

  4. I’m in agreement with Marta. The old design had a lot of style and charm that’s missing in the new signs, which look unusually flat. The typeface has nothing to do with it; the aesthetic of the sign has been lost for no good reason.

  5. The size helps while driving at night, but the generic signs look…well…generic. The new size works well for the neighbourhood/BIA-specific signs, where there’s more space for special designs and the overall impression isn’t as cheap.

  6. The sizing and room afforded the upper and lower case type is nice but to be honest I could live with the cheapness if there WASN’T a nod to the historical in the profile. Removing the decorative element on the top edge would have also removed it’s historical reference but it’s this element that makes an affordable process look like a cheap knock-off of a better made sign. Staying true to the process and materials, keeping an asthetic for the process, that being a contemporary one, would have made these signs a little less interesting but in that dullness, they would become a little more dignified. I’m sure the low-relief embossed signs were too expensive to replace and maintain, thus a flat surface was probably the only option. Yet in choosing this option the designers should have proposed the appropriate profile for the process. Let’s not try to pretend this aluminum blank is anything more than it is or has to be.

  7. The font is called Clearview and was designed down in the States by a team led by James Montalbano and Don Meeker (of Terminal Design and Meeker & Associates, respectively).

    The website for the font goes into the R&D, and why the letterforms are the way they are (for example, open counters help fight the “halo” effect that occurs when headlights reflect off of the signs).

    As Matthew said, the cheap knock-off look is really the trouble. It probably would have been better to look at a new design, even if it were a very simple one. Interesting article on not trying to emulate things when you’re designing can be found here:

    In any case, I think improving legibility on residential street signs or highway signs is a step in the right direction, whether it be because of the aging population/users with limited vision needing to read a street name, or for drivers, the need to be able to quickly interpret a sign when travelling at a fairly high speed. So as always with Toronto, we’ve managed to get halfway there.

  8. This may be nitpicky, but I hate the way the new signs show off the letter ‘g’ (lowercase) looks on these signs – the g isn’t below the line of the text, and is instead on the level with the other letters.

    Lemme try to show what I mean:

    going to the mall.
    the circular part of the g’s wouldn’t be along the same line as the o’s – they’d be about half-way up.

    If you’ve seen one, you know what I mean. It looks like crap.

    (I wish I could explain myself better when it came to fonts.)

  9. “[W]hy does the city always need to ‘change’ or ‘update’ good designs?”

    Because the original design wasn’t “good” to begin with. Legibility and readability first, fripperies second.

  10. It doesn’t mean that “fripperies” ought to be sacrificed completely. Form and function need not be mutually exclusive.

  11. Joe, beauty is not something trivial and accessibility doesn’t mean we have to turn our intersections into the pages of a large print book.

  12. Palmerston, accessibility in the context of road signs *does* pretty much mean large print. Sorry. It’s not as though someone with perfect vision cannot read large-print signs or is in any way inconvenienced. You’re also forgetting that the angle of incidence of people in cars or on bikes can make the “simple” task of reading a sign complicated. Tell me: Just how easily can you read one of those lovely old signs from kitty-corner across the street?

    If you want the rest of the sign to look nice apart from the type, that’s a different discussion.

    This whole post seems like another attempt by _Spacing_ magazine or the Toronto Public Space Committee, which *of course* are two entirely separate things, to take ownership of a topic they simply don’t know enough about. (That remains true even though Blackett is a graphic designer, though apparently not registered.) Perhaps the magazine or TPSC would like to bid on a contract to re-redesign street signage, or on a contract to hold forums to enable the general public to air their ignorance of functional typography. It would make a great presentation at CaseCamp next year.

    Anyway, since actual facts are scarce in this comments section save for the contributions by Meg, here are a few clarifications. For David Topping, the bowl of the Clearview g sits on the baseline (or, more accurately, extends almost imperceptibly below it), and the g does indeed have a short descender:

    (I’ve got lots more photos to post.) The g is not scrunched upward like some fonts used for agate type in newspapers (or Hobo or Antique Olive).

    It seems the city is using different weights of Clearview for different kinds of signage. Compare plain signs with neighbourhood or business-improvement-area signs.

    Type, colour, and placement of highway-style signs – the ones that Spacers find particularly offensive, since they are explicitly made to improve *motorist* safety – was actually studied by Smiley et al. in “Required letter height for street name signs: An on-road study.” PDF:

    Montalbano told me the city is screwing up those signs by using a cutesy border on the edges of the signs, which, in his separate tests, impairs readability. I suppose this is the sort of function-impairing decoration other commenters here would champion, because streetsigns have to *look nice*. (There are other ways in which the city is screwing up the typography of the new signs.)

    I heartily support any inquiries into what’s being done to the old signs. They should be given away or auctioned. I sense a small scandal in the making there. Have we learned nothing about transparency and accountability after MFP? And yes, that applies to something as “simple” as streetsigns.

  13. I still have no idea why Joe Clark thinks the TPSC and Spacing are the same thing. We’ve clarified this on many occasions but he refuses to acknowledge the difference, though he does not have any friends in either organization to verify his claims.

    We are friends with the TPSC and love their work, but we went different ways in the winter/spring of 2004. This is a fact, and continued mis-truths should cease.

  14. I have repeatedly stated that TPSC and the magazine are legally distinct entities. I just don’t believe the two of them disagree on anything serious.

  15. Joe writes, “This whole post seems like another attempt by _Spacing_ magazine or the Toronto Public Space Committee, which *of course* are two entirely separate things, to take ownership of a topic they simply don’t know enough about. ”

    Uh, the original post asked for comments. How is that “taking ownership”? Whatever you have added doesn’t seem any more insightful than Spacing’s outlook, and your comment is filled with simmering contempt. I’m confused why there is animosity or what the t.p.s. committee has to do with any of this…

    And hasn’t Spacing won some design awards? I guess that doesn’t meet Joe’s criteria — have to be registered to know anything, I guess.

    (I usually don’t defend others, but I love Spacing and this guy seems like a jerk)

  16. I have described _Spacing_ magazine as well-designed. And Erica, you seem like a twat. See how it increases the level of discourse?

  17. I’ve always complained to myself (because no one else would listen) about the old street signs in Toronto being far too small to read. While the characteristics of the sign were stylish and reflective of an old traditional city dwelling, they, as we all seem to agree, were not effective unless you were walking a dog.

    Upon the arrival of the new signs, I immediately jumped out of my seat (nearly causing an accident) with some outrageous thought that my telepathic messages were received! The signs were readable (without my dog by my side!). They simply worked. I was able to see the name of the street before turning onto it rather then after. And not just that, they were functional and portrayed the same characteristics of the old signs. I think the key word here is “portrayed”.

    As I am close to the manufacturing world in the signage industry, I know that the cost to re-produce the existing signs would blow this signage budget out of Lake Ontario’s waters. The cheap knock-off compromise in my mind, reaches an acceptable level of aesthetic look, but primarily as each sign should, reaches an above level of acceptable functionality. Yes the signs could have been custom shaped to retain more of its original charm, but it is obvious that Toronto has run out of money.