Citizen complaint of the day: Can't anybody here make a street sign right?

Awkward sign

Having successfully browbeaten the DPW into replacing the malformed Appleton Street sign, the font kvetcher of the South End has turned his steely gaze toward the no man's land between I-93 and South Bay, and he's not liking what he sees one bit:

This post is a perfect example of what's wrong with the new street signs being installed across the city with the new font. "BOSTON ST" is correctly printed using all capital letters. "Al Zwiercan Way" is incorrectly printed. The height ratio of the capital to lower case letters is completely out of scale and the name itself is crookedly printed. It looks shabby in comparison to the correctly printed sign for BOSTON ST. The new font is great, but it's important that it is used in correct scale. It is a small detail that makes a huge visual difference.



Free tagging: 



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    This is supposed to be the Athens of America! Would Pericles put up with this horseshit? Oh, let's not worry that someone carved the inscription on the acropolis all wrong, it'll be a waste of money to fix it. Besides, it's not like anyone will notice. No, Pericles would have ostracized the shit out of that stonemason.

    And worst of all

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    This street is named after some kind of Ay-rab! We can't have such a thing here in Amuricer!

    retuning the racism detector

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    Eeka, your racism detector is kind of oversensitive. White people aren't the only ones who care about doing quality work.


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    Got it. I missed the Al = arabic prefix thing.


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    FWIW - Alexander Zwiercan was a gunner/radio operator who was shot down and killed flying over China in WWII. His remains were never recovered. I believe that the surname is Polish.

    who has the time

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    to complain about stupid stuff like this?

    Love this

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    Not just for the fact that it describes an insufferable pedant, but because it shares a name with a wet jacket. Sounds about right.

    Get it right before you put the sign up

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    Anyone can see that the new sign is an ugly mishmash of type sizes that should never have been put up. Anyone who uses a word processor should be able to do better than this. Make the capital letters and the small letters the same point size. Put them in a straight line. Don't spread the letters too far apart. These will be easier to read than the ALLCAPS signs when they get it right, and they'll look good too.

    Adhesive lettering

    A close look at these crappy mixed-case signs will show that part of the problem is that the signs are NOT painted - the lettering is adhesive vinyl, and in just about every case I've seen the letters have been applied in a really sloppy manner, with poor spacing.

    Also, the smaller font for "St" makes sense when the signs are done in all caps, but looks really awful on the mixed-case signs. (It might help if they spelled "Street" all the way out in smaller type, but in the current format it makes "St" look like an afterthought.)


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    "and in just about every case I've seen the letters have been applied in a really sloppy manner, with poor spacing."

    The signs are cut by computer on laser or knife-based vinyl cutters. Not by hand. The entire cut piece of vinyl is laid down on the metal and the cut-out parts removed.

    Kerning, or the space between individual characters, is not uniform.

    I know this may come as a shock to you, but typography has been studied for centuries...


    I'm aware of how kerning works. The lettering on some of these signs isn't even set on a straight baseline (take another look at the "a" and the "n" at the end of "Zwiercan"). Frankly, if this lettering were appropriately kerned the new signs wouldn't look so bad - the bigger problem is inappropriate gaps between letters, such as between the "A" and the "l" in "Al". And how does kerning account for the large gap between the street name and "Way", which appears to be half again wider than the space between "BOSTON" and "ST"?

    These wacky

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    uneven, weirdly-spaced, lower-case signs are appearing in JP now, too. I understand that there are more important issues out there, and yes, in this economy I suppose we should be grateful we have street signs at all. But good signage is a safety issue and it does make a difference in how a neighborhood feels. Has the City has awarded the street-sign making contract to a kindergarten class? Because I can't figure out any other explanation.

    I give the citizen complainer high marks for trying to describe rationally what's wrong with the sign rather than simply saying, "It's ugly and bizarre!"

    Yep- I saw one around the corner in JP just the other day

    It's seriously ugly.

    The fact is, we wouldn't have to waste money replacing these signs if they would just not put the eyesores up. Yes, it's a small thing, but these new signs look amateurish, at best. We are a world class, beautiful city and we should have signage that reflects that.



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    "BOSTON ST" is correctly printed using all capital letters.

    Not correctly. Upper/lowercase is the federal recommendation (oh shit, here come the tea party fucknuts...)

    Schriver, Karen in Dynamics in Document Design, page 274:
    "When text is set in all capital letters, reading speed is slowed about 13 to 20 percent. Reading speed is optimal when uppercase and lowercase letters are used. When extra emphasis is needed, bold has been found to be a better cue than uppercase."

    And about a billion other things you can find via

    So, can we stop rewarding this person with attention, and ask that our fair city follow the federal guidelines? Or do we need to pretend that there is "controversy" that doesn't exist?

    then the signs need to be bigger

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    most of those sites are about type not signage, different beasts, but the last one of the four has a very convincing series of images of signage-- however to my eyes, in the image at the top of this page, the Boston Street sign is much clearer, especially if I'm driving past it at 25mph. The identifiable parts of the letters in Al Whatever Way (I can't see the image when replying) are just too small.... as one of the people on one of your referenced sites says

    Design pundits make a big deal about the differences in legibility and readability of lowercase and all-caps settings, but the differences are measured in fractions of a second. So if you aren’t typesetting long copy, highway signage, or wayfinding systems then the difference is probably irrelevant.

    whatever speed may be gained by the person standing close enough and still enough to make out the letters doesn't matter to the person 60' away looking at characters 50% smaller and wondering whether to turn or not

    No doubt no one wants to read a paragraph, or even a sentence in all caps. That is clear, a point elaborate on in 99% of the hits on the google search you posted are making. But the same is true of serifs-- are those next?

    Give me big, bold letters that take a split second longer to parse out, but that i'll start parsing sooner.

    But really, Boston should be worrying about putting street signs at the 75% of intersections in this city that lack them rather than changing the ones that already exist.

    Mixed case lettering is not just a recommendation.

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    It is now a requirement. And per state law (MGL Chapter 85, Section 2), all cities and towns must conform with MUTCD requirements - even if they pay for the signs and signals themselves.

    And the problem with the sign is the same as with the Appleton Street one that was replaced - the sign blank isn't tall enough to provide adequate space between the legend and the sign edges.

    But in this picture (i.e. on

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    But in this picture (i.e. on this sign), capitals or no, "Boston St" is by far the easier name to read quickly.

    Familiarity of subject

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    How many times in your life have you read the word Boston? And now Zwiercan?

    Which is easier to read: PHENYLBUTANOL or Acetylene?

    See my comment on the earlier

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    See my comment on the earlier UH post, where I couldn't read anything in the "Fruit St" sign except the F, while stuck in traffic.

    My street isn't even spelled

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    My street isn't even spelled right on the street sign - this person would go mental if they lived in Brighton!

    The standards for local

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    The standards for local street signs are in section 2D.43 of the 2009 MUTCD. See , pages 161-163.

    Summary: Signs must be mixed-case, with 6" uppercase letters and 4.5" lowercase letters. On 2-lane local streets that are 25 mph or less, it's also allowed to use 4" uppercase and 3" lowercase.

    It should go without saying that the text should be parallel to the edges of the sign.


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    follows the Federal MUTCD standards, which also legally apply to all cities and towns in Massachusetts as well (see MGL Chapter 85, Section 2).

    MGL 85-2 relates to state

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    MGL 85-2 relates to state roads and highways and not municipality-controlled streets.

    From MGL Chapter 85 Section 2

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    Except as hereinafter provided, any rule, regulation, order, ordinance or by-law of a city or town hereafter made or promulgated relative to or in connection with the erection or maintenance of signs, traffic control signals, traffic devices, school zones, parking meters or markings on any way within its control shall take effect without department approval provided such signs, traffic control signals, traffic devices, parking meters, school zones or markings are in conformance with the department’s current manual on uniform traffic control devices >(emphasis added) and the department’s sample regulation for a standard municipal traffic code; ....

    on the same subject

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    On the same subject, the city seal is completely useless as a logo because it is unrecognizable at small sizes. There should be a unified standard for typography for city agencies - the slanted 70s-era font used by BPD on their cars and buildings is so egregious BPD doesn't even use it on its website - and City Hall should be torn down as a crime against architecture.

    Stay on Target

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    Why even bring up City Hall here?

    Besides, the fact is that City Hall is one of the most beautifully made examples of Brutalist architecture outside Brasilia. Some people don't have the correct appreciation of Brutalism and should learn to be quiet.

    Besides, the fact is that

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    Besides, the fact is that City Hall is one of the most beautifully made examples of Brutalist architecture outside Brasilia.

    Which just goes to show how ugly all brutalist architecture is, if that monstrosity is one of the best examples. But I tell you what -- even though I think that the city could fund the building of a new, beautiful replacement on the same site by renting out sledgehammers and wrecking balls to anyone who wanted a go at the existing building -- I'd be okay with packing it up and shipping it off to Brasilia. They can have it!

    City Hall

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    There are some brutalist structures that I don't mind. The interior of DC's metro stations are cool and distinctive (particularly the arched ceilings). 177 Huntington and the ancillary buildings around Christian Science Plaza are nice. The J. Edgar Hoover Building in DC (FBI headquarters - featured often on the X-Files) is impressive without being totalitarian, and there is something a little cool about it. (I've never seen the interior) But there is something about City Hall that just completely rubs me the wrong way. There is something just utterly soul-crushing about it. Maybe its the weight of it. You go inside and there's this 70s era decor, rough concrete walls. Everything grey and beige and black and white and this sickly bluish industrial carpeting. Its a perversion of the grandeur of government buildings like the state house - all the color is washed out of it and you're left with grandiosity with all of the nobility and idealism and excitement removed. I've had the privilege of walking through the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House and it gives you a feeling of being part of a majestic tradition. (The furthest I've gotten into the White House was the West Wing basement which looks more or less like a nicer-than-normal basement). When you walk through City Hall you feel like you're walking through Stasi headquarters. You expect to see Joseph K. standing somewhere waiting.

    The above poster has a lovely image of citizens converging on Government Center to pry City Hall apart with their hands. Its a nice though, evocative of both Boston's history of citizen protest and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unfortunately, part of the problem with this building, what contributes to the intimidation factor, is that it looks like it would survive a direct hit from a nuclear bomb. I think thousands of us could go at it all day and all night and, as we collapsed exhausted, the concrete dust would settle and we would see that the damn thing survived intact, merely chipped and scarred and made uglier by our efforts. What an image of Jeffersonian democracy!

    The average life span

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    of a properly fabricated street name sign before it loses its retro-reflectivity and needs to be replaced is eight to ten years.

    Not sure about Boston, but my observations in other communities that have added city and town seals when they recently upgraded their street signs has been that these seals often completely fade out in two to three years.

    Sure makes an annoying batman villain

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    Worst case scenario that I see from this is some vigilante will one night go and remove all the street signs to force the city to replace them properly.

    Suggestions on the vigilante's super villain name?

    Wait, why is he a vigilante

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    Wait, why is he a vigilante super VILLAIN? A guy (or girl) who does that would be a vigilante HERO. Well, in MY eyes, at least.

    As for a name, I suggest ALL-CAPS-TAIN AMERICA.

    Definitely a villain

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    If I had to stand next to this person at a dinner party and listen to his or her stories about street sign vigilantism and typography, it would take about 15 minutes to consider that person evil.

    As for villain names:

    The KERNel

    Power Pedant

    Not me

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    The complaints are all done by the same exact person with the same exact writing style. The idea of somebody copying that style with the sole purpose of getting onto UHub is just too depressing to contemplate, so I won't.

    Is it really worth getting

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    Is it really worth getting depressed about? You're the guy blogging this stuff.


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    I wonder if this new Federal standard is also being applied in places like Brookline, where the street signs are all black-on-white and intricately carved out of metal (or something?).

    Brookline Signs

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    The newer street signs in Brookline don't have the relief in the letters - they're essentially flat. They are still black and white, however. I think that last aspect is actually helpful in letting people know where they are given some of the screwy boundaries with Boston and Newton.

    With respect to the lettering, I seem to remember some kind of local push within the last year or two to bring back the signs where the letters had relief, but I can't remember if that push related only to the signs in historic districts. I like the way the old signs look, but they're definitely more expensive - I remember thinking that, while interesting, the whole discussion was a first world problem, and that the funds might be better spent teaching more kids to speak and write Chinese (or for some other educational endeavor).


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    Humongous bigger issues.

    I biked past this sign this morning, and they really are pretty awful.

    Well, actually the letter

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    Well, actually the letter says that the signs would be allowed if they were either retroreflective or illuminated. Perhaps the next public works improvement in Brookline will be lights to illuminate the street signs.

    How the heck would you

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    How the heck would you install a light on every street-name sign in a town?

    Reflective paint

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    Particularly if the letters are raised, you'd just run a rollerfull of reflective paint over the letters.

    From the linked document: "3.

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    From the linked document:

    "3. Is there paint or other treatment that can be applied to our existing historic sign panels to achieve retroreflectivity? No. However, the historic sign panels may be displayed below the new Street Name signs."

    Use two (or four, depending

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    Use two (or four, depending on the particular signpost) small led spotlights to shine on the sign from each side so that people can read it. I don't think the regulation said that the light has to be inside the sign, just that ordinary street lIghting wasn't enough. This would be special lighting.

    Or you could just replace the signs entirely

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    with conforming retro-reflective ones for less cost and less future maintenance requirements.

    As for the "historic signs" argument, ask yourselves this question: Would such a discussion even be taking place if Brookline wanted to keep existing yellow stop signs because of their historical significance?

    A Haiku:

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    Sign kvetcher is back,

    Complaining now from South Bay,

    Won't you get a life?

    It took more time for you to

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    It took more time for you to write that haiku than for the south end guy to complain to city hall. Not sure you should be telling anyone to get a life.

    Seriously, the signs he's kvetching about are ugly. He's right to keep complaining.

    another haiku

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    You're writing haiku

    To smack an involved neighbor

    Don't you need a life?

    I applaud the sign kvetcher

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    I'm sure the sign kvetcher is dreadfully bad company, but often times the only way to hold the government accountable is for some persistent person-with-poor-interpersonal-skills to doggedly go after an issue. It's clear that the city isn't inspecting the workmanship it's paying for; I certainly don't have the patience or the inclination to do so, but I'm glad someone else does.

    There's someone in the sign shop who is paid very generously, who enjoys the protection of a strong union, who will have the opportunity to retire at a young age with a generous pension, and who will receive free medical care for life. That's a compensation package that even the most highly qualified sign maker in the private sector could only dream of earning.

    In return for which, is it really too much to ask that he or she do the job with some measure of excellence?

    Unlike, say, stacking paper in the basement of City Hall, there's something particularly annnoying about these signs. They say, "I have no damn respect for you, the public who is paying my generous salary, and I'm going to make the sign into a permanent and very public display of that lack of respect."

    Yeah, it's a little thing, but because of its very nature as a sign, it's a particularly in-your-face little thing. Taxpayers ought to insist on quality in everything they buy. The sign maker ought to be retrained, and his supervisor ought to be fired.

    likely privatized

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    The city shut down its print shop a few years ago and auctioned everything off. My guess is that sign-making has been privatized.

    Your face is ugly

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    But it apparently gets the job done. We'll live with that, too.

    Privatized, how interesting!

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    So it's nothing like the "dream" job the anon described? No big, scary union? No salary a private signmaker "could only dream of? No pension?

    Yet the market somehow didn't correct this sign. The grand miracle of private enterprise couldn't set right what detractors believed public works had gotten so wrong? Oh, and they managed to pay someone a shitty wage to take zero pride in their work and slap the taxpayer in the face while a public entity -- the city's complaint site -- had to correct the situation.

    Wow, way to uncork a libertarian rant that makes a great argument for the public sector, anon. You're a complete ass.


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    I live off Boston St and this street is actually called Power Street (small dead end next to a polish club). The power street sign was up and appeared in same font as Boston street but rumor has it that someone from the Polish club removed that sign and made this one...hence, I dont believe this is a city approved sign.

    I used to live next to DJ's,

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    I used to live next to DJ's, and was wondering if a street was renamed...


    It's listed in the street index for assessors, at the Suffolk County Registry of Deeds:

    Al Zwiercan Way, S. Bos., Public way, from 80 Boston to approximately 42 feet southeasterly. (Formerly Power Street.)

    That seems fairly official to me.

    Most Pedantic City

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    Given all the listicles on the Web, I'm stunned nobody's come up with that one. Boston would run away with the title. I'm convinced that just about every other person in this town is named Actually, just based on how local sentences begin with "Actually..."

    I've seen other commenters say this, but I think it's especially applicable to this discussion: Boston, where it's better to be right than helpful.

    If I were a signmaker...

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    Every time a complaint like this was lodged I'd make a perfect replacement immediately. Then I'd make a replacement for another street with completely random spacing and typeface, just to drive the sign vigilante nuts.

    A waste of money? Perhaps, but so is replacing a completely legible sign with an only incrementally more legible sign.

    Someone needs to get a

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    Someone needs to get a life
    Walking around a very high crime area with drugged sickend people taking their kids to the clinic and this is what they are complaining about. High level of b and e crimes there as well

    At least both the major and

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    At least both the major and cross street are identified in the city of Boston. As a transplant from NYC, I am constantly getting confused in the suburbs when the signage is only too clear on what cross streets I am passing, but gives me no clue about what street I am on.

    Let me give you the Boston answer

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    "If you don't know what street you're on, what the hell are you doing there?"

    You'll have to pardon the Boston suburbs. They labor under the assumption that not only was everyone born there, but nobody would want to move there. If you're the exception, they wonder why you haven't pored through every atlas, map, rulebook and ordinance list before you arrived.

    Isn't that what every intelligent person does before they move anywhere? Doesn't everyone familiarize themselves with ever detail of the town they're relocating to, no matter how seemingly insignificant? How dare you not realize what road you're on, especially when that road name changes five times in two miles?

    Remember, this is a place that greets requests for directions with such gems as "If you turn left where the old Dunkin Donuts sign used to be..." Boston's entire standard operating procedure is based on the assumption that you already know everything about the place, so signage on streets and around rotaries is minimal. Contrast this with New York, which correctly assumes that a lot of people who live and work in the city or visit it haven't done so their whole lives and try to spell things out as plainly as possible.

    Buddy, that ain't no font

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    Doesn't this guy know its not a FONT, it's a TYPEFACE! Amateur.