City of Windsor street name signs get a 'gothic' makeover
Jonathan Pinto gets a peek inside the city's sign shop on Mercer Street
I was recently driving at the intersection of McDougall and Elliott when I noticed something that seemed off: the street name sign affixed to the traffic light pole looked different.
It was still green and white, and the block number was displayed — but the typeface was different. I thought it might be a mistake, but then I noticed that most of the signs on McDougall shared this new look.
I'm a bit of a wayfinding geek, so I decided to find out more by sending an email to city engineer Mark Winterton. He confirmed that the city was indeed using a new typeface for its signs.
I asked Winterton if he'd let me see where the city's signs are made — and meet the people who make them. He agreed to give me a behind the scenes look.
Windsor's sign shop is located at 1269 Mercer St., sharing space with all of the city's other traffic operations. Every year, it churns out 12,000 — 15,000 signs not just for Windsor, but for municipalities as far as Sarnia and London.
As you might expect, there were signs everywhere.
The famous song by the Five Man Electrical Band was ringing through my head.
So why the new signs on McDougall?
Turns out that over the years, the city has referred the road as both McDougall Street and McDougall Avenue. Both were used in various parts of the route.
"The section at the south end was a different name from the section that's north of Tecumseh Road," explained John Wolf, the city's senior manager of traffic operations, parking operations and transportation planning.
Recently, the city clarified that the McDougall was a "street" for its entire length, and so the signs had to be changed to be consistent.
So why change the typeface?
It turns out the change came from a pair of fresh eyes.
In September, the city hired Dave Wilcox, a man with 18 years in the sign-making business, as the municipality's sole sign writer.
"There were several different fonts being used," Wilcox explained, adding that traffic signs are regulated by an increasingly complex document called the Ontario Traffic Manual.
Consistency is important to make signs easy to understand, so Wilcox asked his supervisors to help settle on a single typeface.
"We found a few fonts that were appropriate," he explained. "Then we did samples and just judged [the one that was most legible so] we could do all the signs the same."
For years, the city has used a typeface called Helvetica as its general font of choice for street name signs.
Now new signs will use a typeface called Highway Gothic — the same as what's used on provincial highways such as the 401.
Wilcox admits that while the two designs share many similarities, Highway Gothic is simply more legible.
"You'll notice the tops of all the letters are angled — it kind of makes them easier to read," he said. "That's probably the first thing you notice."
Signmaking a blend of manual skill and technology
Thanks to computers, a typical Windsor street name sign can be produced in about 15 minutes.
Windsor has three different sizes:
- 15 cm tall versions used on most residential streets
- 30 cm tall versions used at all signalised intersections
- 45 cm tall 'oversized' signs that sit near the traffic signal
Wilcox even allowed me to affixed a printed vinyl sheet to an aluminum plate — the final stage of making a Windsor street sign.
Tap on the audio to hear Jonathan try to make a street sign. (0:55)
Let's just say that the people of Windsor should be glad that I'm not in charge of making the signs — there were bubbles everywhere.
Thankfully, Wilcox's 18 years of experience kicked in, and he fixed up my mistakes in no time.
New signs will take years to roll-out
While city staff is constantly inspecting and replacing signs to ensure they are properly reflective and free from physical damage, street name signs can last up to 15 years.
"It depends on what direction the sign is facing," Wolf said. "So a sign facing south, or east, or west will have a different life span from one that's facing north, because the sun's beating on it all the time."
Since signs are replaced only when needed, it could be a decade and a half before the sign on your street sports a new gothic look.