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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

New Toronto street signs

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Tonight, the City of Toronto has its first public meeting about the proposed new street signs.

In the Winter 2006 issue of Spacing, I wrote about the implementation of the City’s street sign replacement program. The Transportation department had begun to replace the old City of Toronto signs (white background, black lettering, old time colonial feel, three dimensional) with larger, more reflective signs that mimicked the old style, but seemed like cheap knock-offs.

And I wasn’t the only one who thought the new signs were a step backwards, at least from a graphic design perspective. The Transportation department received a number of complaints, as did city councillors. So the Works Committee asked Transportation to go away and come up with a new design. The motivation for change also came from the City’s renewed interest in improving the appearance of the city’s streetscape, specifically the new street furniture program.

Transportation commissioned Kramer Design Associates, the folks behind the most recent bus shelter and the ad-festooned “info” pillars, to come up with a contemporary design.

I have to say that I am quite pleased with the mock-ups. Certainly, feedback from the public, BIAs, and neighbourhood residents will shape the final design, but I think they are on the right track. The best elements of the new-old signs were their reflectivity and legibility, which have been carried over into the Kramer designs.

Upper- and lower-case fonts are much easier to read than all-caps. We see words as shapes, not as individual letters. This function allows those with poor eyesight to read street names with much more ease from a greater distance. The trade-off of formality and tradition for function is worth it, I believe.
Placing the street name on a blue background is key, I believe. White, green or metallic backgrounds can easily blend into the background (trees or walls, for example).

The neighbourhood identifier may be a touchy subject for some. I have already heard from a few designers that it might add clutter to the clean design. Transportation indicated to me that they want the ‘hood or BIA moniker to be a single colour with an sparse design. Some areas, like the Annex, have a complicated street sign design that detracts from its functionality. While it is nice to promote your neighbourhood, it is more important for people to easily see which street they are approaching. I feel as long as the City is strict on this front from the get-go, this shouldn’t much of a problem.

I also like the modularity of the design. The neghbourhood identifier doesn’t have to be on every sign. If you look at the 3D rendering (above), you’ll see that both the identifier and the street number are thin pieces of metal that can slide into slots on the top and bottom of the sign. That was one of the best aspects of the old signs — that acorn on top was not only decorative, it functioned as a base for another street sign to be placed on top of it.

If the City were to implement this program and eventually replace all 60,000 street signs it could take up to 30 years. Transportation is hoping that more money will be dedicated to the street sign program than currently available so that the new designs can hit the streets at a quicker rate. Currently, the City replaces about 2,000 to 2,500 signs a year (100 to 200 signs going missing either due to theft or damage, with each sign costing roughly $150 to make).

Once the feedback cycle is complete, the City will go back and modify the design and hopefully bring it back to Works and then to Council in the late winter or early spring.

Let’s hear your thoughts on the concept.

– – – – – – – – – –

UPDATE: I went looking for the dates on the City of Toronto website but couldn’t find them. The resourceful blogger Joe Clark has passed them along to us:

All meetings will be held from 7:00pm to 9:00pm. A formal presentation will be given at 7:30pm. The meeting dates and locations are as follows:

Wednesday, September 20
Etobicoke Civic Centre
399 The West Mall
Main Floor Boardroom

Thursday, September 21
North York Civic Centre
5100 Yonge Street
Council Chambers

Monday, September 25
Scarborough Civic Centre
150 Borough Drive
Main Floor Rotunda

Tuesday, September 26
Metro Hall
55 John Street
Room 308



  1. Wow. When I first saw the so-called knock-off signs in 2004, I really didn’t like them, for all the same reasons you mentioned and that were captured in Brett Lamb’s cartoon.

    But, ever since, they’ve been growing on me. And, I really would prefer a design that maintains the city’s tradition and expands it across the amalgamated area rather than the new design which, while cool, is rather generic and could be in any community anywhere.

    I vote for the cheap knock-off.

  2. Well they’re an improvement off the cheap acorn knockoffs. With the 60000 streetsigns, I take it this is for the entire city, not just the old city.

    1070 Bathurst – so what would the sign look like for Vermont Ave? (since that’s the intersection) 😉

  3. I’m not sure how I feel about the above designs… they’re quite nice, but maybe a bit too modern looking for some neighbourhoods. More importantly, the shiny metal portions might make the entire sign unreadable because of glare on sunny days.

    I might like to make these comments at the public meeting tonight or hear those of others, but the article forgot to mention the time and location of it. Any chance of an update with that info as well as a link to wherever the samples came from?


  4. Hmm… Eye catching. And I think I prefer it to the old “new” design. I’ll miss the traditional street signs, but this version turns my head and is easy to read at first glance.

  5. While “I like it,” “I don’t like it,” “I think it looks attractive,” “I think it looks ugly,” and “I think it works well from a graphic-design perspective” are all perfectly valid opinions to venture, they are not *important*.

    What is actually important is demonstrable performance, which, in the case of street signage, has to include a wide range of use cases. (Some you might not have thought of: Cyclist at night in the rain; wheelchair user with wraparound sunglasses; person with central field loss; driver in Ferrari convertible with restricted upward angle of vision.)

    I certainly welcome any opinions about à¦sthetic features of street signage. However, what I want to see is test results. And that’s what _Spacing_, TPSC, and other commentators should demand, too.

    Oh, and BTW: Wordshape – often misnamed “bouma” by one inveterate commentator from the Society of Flat-Earth Typography – is not a significant contributor to the cognitive activity we call reading. It isn’t absent; it’s just not significant. The trouble is that the studies demonstrating that fact have dealt with continuous or immersive reading (or with rapid serial visual presentation), not with the reading task of quick glances at faraway signage. (There are other ways to read signage, but that’s a biggie.)

    I know of no eyetracking or other measurement studies of such reading scenarios, but I’m gonna do a literature search to double-check. (My friend with the Ph.D. in reading acquisition is off till October, or I’d just ask him.)

    Nonetheless, it absolutely stands to reason that mixed-case usage will be more readable (and, in the signage case, legible – they’re two different things) than all-upper-case. Then we start talking about the fact that grotesk sansserifs, even the aboriginal such sansserif used in the mockups, have confusable character shapes and are unsuitable for high-legibility uses like streetsigns.

  6. I think it’s fairly hideous, it lacks any real identity.

    Where’s the blue colour dervived from? Is toronto blue? Why not TTC red? If there going to replace the street signs, they should be as iconic as the existing signs. These, while easy to read, look cheap to me.

  7. Can’t say I like them. I wish we could just stick with the current “old” design. I don’t see why it needs to be changed?

  8. I echo hideousness. They’re so generic and bland, with no charm.

  9. Not sure why they can’t just modify the design of the old signs to accommodate these improvements to the text and the background.

    It’s not like the city isn’t already employing a wide variety of street signs. Creating a sign with white upper & lower case text on a dark blue reflective background with a shape similar to the old signs would fit in nicely with the current medley of signs:

    Example One, Two, Three,Four,Five,Six,Seven,Eight

    And I thought the issue was how cheap they looked, not the design itself, so perhaps all that’s needed is some nice rounded aluminum edging or something to make them look a little more polished and “modern”.

    I also think that allotting more funds to replacing perfectly good street signs just to speed up the 30 year process is ridiculous. Chances are this new design will be modified sometime in the next 30 years anyway, and I think there are a lot of other places that money is needed more. I think people sleeping on the street is more of an eyesore than a green or white, rather than blue, street sign.

  10. I don’t think “bland” is a terrible thing in a street sign. Personally, I find it a bit slick, but tolerable. Seems legible enough, though how it stands up under different conditions, as Joe mentions, is impossible to tell from a rendering.

    (Certainly better than their other efforts for the city to date. Who designs a bus shelter with a glass roof that curves down over the entrance?)

  11. The listings for the public meetings, which I have confirmed are not posted on a Web site, are:

    All meetings will be held from 7:00pm to 9:00pm. A formal presentation will be given at 7:30pm. The meeting dates and locations are as follows:

    Wednesday, September 20
    Etobicoke Civic Centre
    399 The West Mall
    Main Floor Boardroom

    Thursday, September 21
    North York Civic Centre
    5100 Yonge Street
    Council Chambers

    Monday, September 25
    Scarborough Civic Centre
    150 Borough Drive
    Main Floor Rotunda

    Tuesday, September 26
    Metro Hall
    55 John Street
    Room 308

  12. there is a certain sleek suburban sheen to them that I don’t like. Like toe faux street signs in Ye Olde Shopping Mall. I like the old old signs a lot, at least the Toronto ones and the East York ones. They offer a kind of personalized and they’re classic Toronto. When you see a commercial/movie with one of those street signs you instantly know it is Toronto, much like the bike posts or TTC bus polls. It’s the little things that count.

    Why not just make new copies of the old ones? Was it too expensive? Too difficult for drivers to see?

  13. Joe Clark, in his first comment, brings the argument around to functionality.

    I haven’t read anything that suggests these new designs propose to offer better readability than the new-old signs (aka the knock-offs). And, if there were improvements, I’d expect them to be font-based, and therefore transferable to the “knock-off”.

    The important factors would seem to be cost and image. I don’t know which one costs more, but we should be able to find out. But when it comes to rebranding the look of the city, I don’t know who asked for that.

  14. A few points of clarity:

    1. I do not think the upper part will look as metallic as it does in the rendering. That was made clear to me.

    2. The old old signs (original ones) are really expensive to make (in the range of $500) where as the new ones are around $150-$200.

    3. Someone asked about the colour blue background: blue has been used in Toronto for over 100 years (see street signs still attached to old houses) and is used throughout the former cities. It has also been proven (so I am told) to be the easiest colour to read reverse type on. Blue has become the standard around the world, though I still see lots of green traffic signs, but mostly on highways.

    4. Works Committee asked for it after complaints and bad media of the new-old knock offs.

    5. Joe is correct on the font choice of the new signs, and the new-old signs use Clearingview. Not much of a difference. Though Clearingview has a taller x-height (the size of a lower case letter) which makes a font seem bigger. It also means shallow ascenders and decenders (the tops of “t”, “k”, and “p” and “q”).  < That is hard to write/explain.

  15. There’s a world of difference between Clearview and Akzidenz. To the untrained eye there is, however, “not much” of one.

  16. I don’t think it’s that “boring” or “hideous”–or at least, those euphemisms seem a little extreme. However, I agree that it’ll probably make more sense in the former boroughs than the former City of Toronto, where memories of the “acorn signs” linger long. (Blue tabs + upper/lower case always reminds me of Scarborough…)

  17. Not too bad. Almost a modern homage to the old signs as some have sort of suggested. Better than the old ones for sure (besides the bigger font/size, the only thing they did right with the cheap larger signs was to at least keep the old City of Toronto white, Forest Hill stayed green, and the suburbs blue (though the “old look” doesn’t suit most of that).

    I’d like to keep the white/green/blue distinction if possible (if only because blue and green is used by just about everywhere else in the GTA), just as the old, stylish, white arc lights are making a minor comeback in old Toronto again).

    All the 416 suburbs used blue (though Etobicoke was paler than the rest), as does Mississauga. Markham uses (used?) brown of all colours. Everywhere else (Brampton, Oakville, etc) is white-on-green. I’d hate to see a red street sign, though the idea (because of the TTC) is cute.

  18. In Peterborough county, rural fire routes (these are unofficial, private roads that require a standard marking for emergency vehicles) have a white on red sign and it’s hard to read.

    The new Toronto signs are neither offensive, nor inoffensive but I fear they will date pretty badly. They seem to follow the same design charrette as our “city within a park” park signs which are rather uninspriing. Better to just keep it austere and it’ll never age.

    The 2-D signs would have looked fine if they wouldn’t have flattened the Prussian war helmet spike on top and made it look like a farce.

  19. Jordan: “Is toronto blue?”

    Yes, actually. It’s a traditional Toronto colour. Why do you think the Argonauts are nicknamed “the double blue”? It’s also the colour of the Toronto flag.

  20. Looks kinda like a 7-iron. I’d have to see them in person to really form much more of an opinion.

  21. I like the old ones. The new ones look like they’re designed with the avereage shopping mall aesthetic in mind (someone said something like this earlier in the thread). If I had to choose between the “cheap knock-off” and this new design, I would much rather go with the former.

  22. One of the good points about the old city of Toronto street name signs was that if I was looking for an address where I never was before, it was easy to get oriented by looking for the address number on the the street name sign. It told me the direction by whether or not the numbers were going upward or downward, if I was on the correct side of a street, and I did not have to hunt for the number on a window, wall, door, or missing. One could then get off the streetcar, bus, or car near the location based on that information.

    However, when they started to put up the new blue signs with white lettering in the outer city, they left out the street numbers. NO GOOD!! The surrounding cities have this same terrible missing idea.

    I was once going out for an interview by car, but could not find the building. There was no numbers on the street name signs, nor on the buildings, nor on any neon catus signs of shopping centres. Never did make it. And Yahoo! maps gave the location which turned out to be in the middle of an empty field.

    The design of new street name sign should not be some knock-off, and should have the street number even in the outer parts of the city.

    One additional point, the large blue street name signs at traffic lights should be located on the far-side traffic light, in addition to an approach green informational sign.

  23. I went to the Metro Hall consultation. There were about 30-35 in attendance, which was lamented by at least two members in the public, who rightfully complained about the lack of public notice (not even on the main City website!). They did say they put ads and releases in the National Post and the Metroland papers (but who reads those?).

    A couple of things of interest:
    – All new signs will have street numbers, not just in the city of Toronto
    – There is supposed to be a process for decommissioned signs to be made available to the public (likely at a cost) now, as this was brought up a lot lately.
    – The “Toronto” logo at the top is in my opinion, redundant, but this space is useful for BIA branding.
    – The signs will be consistant and standardized – just two lengths of sign, and one type of arch. The blue colour will be consistant, so no more distinctive green signs for Forest Hill.
    – There will be a public consultation on the website as well, before this is brought to council early in the new term.
    – New signs will only be replaced when needed, or when a BIA requests (and pays) for new signs.

  24. At the same time that the design makes every area the same (with reference to previous forest hill comments), it’s quite boring.

    I feel like 60 years later when my grand kid asks me why the street signs look like THAT, i won’t know what to say. I’ll just have to settle with, “well, all the malls and bus shelters and garbage cans – they all look like that”. Hopefully the kid will understand that Toronto is not meant to be a sterile, metallic, and bland place. Don’t think the signs say much about our city to be honest. We’ve got more character than that.

    And the typography exercise must have been missed by Kramer Design, cuz my mom definitely would be able to read Clearview much better than this condensed whatever font that’s being used. And she’s not even 60 yet.

    Personally, i feel like we’re deleting a lotta history by replacing all the ‘hood signs and replacing it with this post-modern standardized metal post… a post that we don’t even know will be that much better in terms of universal functionality and accessibility

  25. Matthew Blackett is incorrect when he says the original 3D acorn-topped signs cost $500 each to make. I asked about this cost at the public hearing and was told $150 per sign. There was also a private sign maker in attendance who said he could make the signs for about $75 each.

    Pete Gardiner

  26. The new “cheap knock-offs” which mimick the old signs cost $150 per. The old ones are around $500 because of imbossing, molding, etc. I stand by that fact.

    A private sign maker is just quoting flat, letter stamped signs.

  27. I like the look of the design, but please tell them to use some of the extra real estate to post larger (or at least wider and widely spaced) digits. This has been my main gripe against the current signage standard here in Ottawa.

    To my eye, the numbering is often more important than the name (which I often know and expect in advance of seeing the sign), and besides, the “mixed case is better because people recognize words by their shape” argument doesn’t play for digits, so they need the extra space to be distinguishable.