06 April 2009

San Francisco Sign Geeks Find Little to Like About New Blades

2014.Proving that I'm not the only "blade-head" in existence, or at least, not the only sign geek who obsesses about the little things, a post I stumbled on on San Francisco Metblogs exhibits some SFers displeasure with an update on an old classic. Here's a blade identifying the 500 block of Precita, older (there was some wear, we see, where the block index tab meets the main blade):

I love SF Street blades. They are a participant sport.

Anyway, the above graphic (as well as the one below) of a new and old (respectively) blade for the 500 block of Precita Avenue in SF were nicked from Metblogs San Francisco, at least some-of-whose participants are as passionate on the basics of good street blade design as I am. Look upon this graphic just a moment:

What caught my eye was the "stripy" visual texture to the sign's actual stock, which is all but identical to the sheet stock that seems to be used by Portland right now. Compare:

It's visible on the white areas (which is where the stock shows through – and I just noticed this, did you? – in SF, they apply the letters to the background, whereas here in PDX they obviously cut the letters out of the background. Anyway, digressing here).

I came for the new blade on that post but I stayed for the commentary, because the posters there noticed some things which may seem minor to most but are compelling to blade heads and even if you think it's minor and unimportant, my point is here, you noticed it, even if you aren't a typographer or designer. From SFMetblogs commenter cmarlboro:

I think it’s the same font, but they’re digitally stretching the type to (sort of) fill the space rather than using it centered at its normal set width. It’s most noticeable on short street names like NOE. It looks like crap, but that’s what happens when you rely on jail labor rather than hiring a typographer.

Cmarlboro may or may not be a designer or a typographer, but he's nailed it absolutely to the wall here.

The type is indeed justified left. This is great for the typed page, but horrible for the street blade, where unless there's a manifest reason for type to be forced over, it just seems to look better centered in the blade. That's my visual experience, as well as cmarlboro's, and I've got the gut feeling that that's the way it works for most people.

The other thing that the commenter noticed, the "stretching of the type", is also something that should be avoided. Typographyers call this "extended" type, and there are two ways to get it; to design a type that's extended, and to do so digitally.

If you want extended type to fill a space, it is vastly preferable to use type designed as such. Artificially extended type looks stretched and bad, and people will notice that it's ugly. Type designed as extended is true to its own internal structure and every bit of it looks as though it was meant to be that way. That may sound a little abstruse, so looking at it from the other way, if you stretch type to create an artificial extended type, what's thick becomes thin, which leaves the parts that didn't get stretched looking thicker than they should and wrong.

I don't think everyone aspires to be a designer, but I do believe that everyone registers crappy design, if only in the back of their minds. This is why design has to be tight, has to work; if it strikes a sour note, people will notice, and if they don't disrespect you out loud on a blog somewhere, you will lose credibility with them in the mind.

I don't know if SF in particular makes their blades with jail labor, as cmarlboro suspects, but as far as hiring a pro typographer, I'm all for that! Where do I send my rezumay?

And taking this SF street blade thing as far as I can: One commenter on the SF Metblogs post described the blade illustrated right (and gleaned from the link to Google Maps (which you can dial up yourself by Google Mapping the intersection in SF), at 21st Avenue and Anzo Street in the city's Richmond district, to be an "abomination". I wouldn't go so far as to say that, but then, I'm not emotionally invested in the look of SF's blades as the commenter (who I'm assuming is a local) would be.

I think the design has much to say for it, and is a logical evolution of the SF blade (by reducing the number of parts you have to attach and rivet on, you reduce the difficulty level of actually producing the item and the cost). The type is preserved, the black-on-white look is still there, the omission of the generic from the named street, the black stroke around the edge of the sign ... all very SF looks.

The fault I'd find with this is that the numbered avenue blade breaks the rule of eyeflow: your natural eyeflow in the Western mode tends to go left to right and up to down, so you are as prone to read the sign as 21st 500 Av rather than 21st Ave (500). This can be fixed by putting the Av generic over the block index and arrow.

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NB: The Precita Street blade pictures and comments from SF Metblogs are copyright the creators and are used for informational and illustrative purposes only.

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