Design off the beaten path
January 12, 2015 6:28 PM   Subscribe

Trail Type is a site showcasing loads of examples of type found out on the trail. You probably thought there were only a couple standard fonts used by Forest Service and National Park organizations, but it turns out there are loads of different examples of handmade, routered-into-wood, and quickly made letterforms, and they're all beautiful.
posted by mathowie (29 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
 
The Cohab Canyon sign is awesome.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:36 PM on January 12, 2015


I believe I read somewhere that prototypes (alphabetic examples) were delivered to the workshops of each park but the interpretations (the actual implementations) were entirely local.
posted by cleroy at 6:37 PM on January 12, 2015


Perdition Trail font is gorgeous!
posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 6:38 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


This blog reminded me of all the great fonts I saw in Glacier National Park a couple years ago. The signage looked different than any other national park I'd seen, and they were all gorgeous.
posted by mathowie at 6:45 PM on January 12, 2015


This reminds me of a page I bookmarked long ago, which may be of interest here: Map Symbols & Patterns for National Park Service Maps. Available in PDF, Illustrator, TrueType, and ArcGIS. And best of all 'NPS symbols are free and in the public domain.'
posted by fings at 6:47 PM on January 12, 2015 [26 favorites]


Trails and fonts - two of my favorite things. This may be factored into future vacation plans.
posted by headnsouth at 6:52 PM on January 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of a page I bookmarked long ago, which may be of interest here: Map Symbols & Patterns for National Park Service Maps. Available in PDF, Illustrator, TrueType, and ArcGIS. And best of all 'NPS symbols are free and in the public domain.'

I can't favorite this enough, thank you!
posted by jason_steakums at 6:55 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Damn straight buses and RVs are prohibited.
posted by Invisible Green Time-Lapse Peloton at 6:56 PM on January 12, 2015


This is great! One of the things that gives the National Parks that special sense of cohesion and nobility are the consistent design elements...even when the consistency is, well, inconsistent. The feel is there. Thanks!
posted by Miko at 7:22 PM on January 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


"When the moon steals your shoes" is a particular kind of 1980s interpretive sign typeface and style that I have a near-allergic reaction to at this stage in my career. It was ubiquitous at that time, and you can still find examples all over the place, under cracked, scratched Plexi. It sort of partakes of a "Whole Earth Catalog" open/explanatory feel, and the typefaces feel like they came out of "Where the Sidewalk Ends."

I love the cursive font of the "National Forest" routed signs. It feels jolly to me, like something from a 50s festive record album cover, or a Rankin-Bass special, or a big box of candy.
posted by Miko at 7:26 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


I need more "< MORE DIFFICULT / LESS DIFFICULT > signs in my life.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:40 PM on January 12, 2015 [6 favorites]


Thanks for posting this! This was a big part of my time from Colorado, now it's very nostalgic. I have a metal pin somewhere that is a replica of the survey marker on top of Long's Peak.
posted by carter at 7:42 PM on January 12, 2015


BLADDERPOO?!
posted by Parasite Unseen at 7:44 PM on January 12, 2015


A lot of these "fonts" are ad hoc and result from pragmatism rather than design. For example, "Fees Due Year Round" has a lot more to do with easing the woodworking than making it look right. "Herman CR Trail #406" is exactly what you get if you apply a lettering kit -- those used to be A Thing before computers, you'd get a tracing bar with fonts in several sizes, a pantograph and a pen -- and instead of the India Ink pen you make it guide a router or woodburner. And "Berkeley Pit" is obviously some guy who wouldn't know Design if it ran him over on a motorcycle, but just thought he'd make it "look cool.
posted by localroger at 7:50 PM on January 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


Love the art deco look of this one from Colorado.
posted by mathowie at 7:58 PM on January 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


I like how the typeface for HAIRY JOHNS TR. and STONY RUN RD., being the same, enhances the confusion one might feel having read this sign and wondering if the trail and road just happen to both be that way or you won't know which is which, which would be of some concern because I'd sure as hell rather take Stony Run Road over walking down the Hairy Johns Trail.
posted by juiceCake at 8:06 PM on January 12, 2015


A lot of these "fonts" are ad hoc and result from pragmatism rather than design.

I sort of agree about pragmatism being the guide, but I also think that undermines the actual skill required for handlettering or handcarving/routing, which, if you've had any experience trying it, you know doesn't come naturally. Regularity, evenness, kerning, consistency, centering even on each line with no imbalances, reference to existing familiar letterforms - all of these are evident in this work. It's not done by amateurs and hacks, but by people with a strong sense of lettering as a visual form. In my experience, signs made by people without practice, some training, some attention, and some skill look like an embarrassing, unholy mess. Which these signs do not.

My dad got me interested in lettering. He's an excellent handletterer who trained on the old Speedball kits, with fountain pens and brush pens, and has a bunch of fonts he can rip of his pen without giving it much thought or laboring hard - italics, romans, all-caps, serifs, sans-serifs, medieval, etc. I followed in his tracks and developed a flair for freehand lettering even in my teens - but in a lifetime of being the non-expert who was elected to make signs, write the chalkboard menu, etc., I've realized that I did have a skill that others didn't, and some people with that skill certainly take it even further than I did even without declaring themselves to be professional lettering artists. Also, my enthusiasm for handlettering on grocery store and other vernacular signs has always made it stand out to me. It's true that ease and simplicity guided the production of these signs, but it's also true that it was done (most of these examples) by people with a strong sense of the visual and plenty of practiced experience making letter s, words, and signs. If that expertise doesn't count as "design," it's not the fault of the maker but of the person defining "design."
posted by Miko at 8:53 PM on January 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


I should also add that handlettering and signmaking was once a common enough skill/specialty that itinerant workers could make a living at it moving from town to town. And they weren't just making stuff up with "pragmatism," they were using a vernacular vocabulary of fonts that was very agreed upon and standard. It happens to also be pragmatic, but that's because the tools they had -brushes, gouges, routers, ink pens - were the only tools anybody had, and the work had to be produced by the tools. But they were absolutely not just winging it.
posted by Miko at 9:02 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]




National Park/Forest/Monument graphics are the icons I truly feel in a religious sense. That combination of vast & vivid landscapes marked only with those woodsy, campground-font signs or the stark modernist desert park signs always resonates. I've taken too many pictures of trail signs and national park entrances, and have all those NPS symbol fonts installed just in case ....

If you like those handcrafted iron trail signs like you see in Yosemite and surrounding Sierra Nevada trails, I've seen a shop in Bishop on U.S. 395 (south end of town) that makes the signs to order. If I ever get a house built on my land out there, I fully intend to install a couple of weathered trail signs on my morning 3-mile loop.
posted by kenlayne at 10:23 PM on January 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Love the art deco look of this one from Colorado.
posted by mathowie at 7:58 PM on January 12 [2 favorites −] Favorite added! [!]"


Yes, it is a "look" - too fat for an Art Deco tag, at any rate. The font Orange Dinosaur Slide mentions, Perdition Trail, is definitely Art Deco, very nice.

This is iconic Forest Service typography, to my mind, probably because I went to camp in the early 70s when signs created in the 1960s were predominant. And I find the curved letters (played against the non-cursive of the title) pleasing, with a bit of flair to boot.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 10:27 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


One of the things that bothers me about several of the Washington State park signs is the troubling abstraction inconsistencies. Here we have an abstract person walking a fairly realistic dog. At the park in Glacier there was a similar sign with an abstract person riding a pretty realistic horse. Why??? The typefaces are quite nice, however.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:52 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Looking at fings PDF link, it looks like the abstract-humon hangs out with real-animal icons are leftovers from pre-2006 parks signs. So, presumably someone in the parks service was also troubled by them. Way to go, Parks service!
posted by Jon Mitchell at 12:00 AM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


too fat for an Art Deco tag

Oh, I strenuously disagree -- it's basically a simpler form of the typeface used for the new The Great Gatsby. (Here's a family tree, more or less, showing some of the lineage of these fonts.) In fact I would say that one of the key defining characteristic of Art Deco era typefaces is the light/heavy variation in line weight.

(Some of the thinner ones, to me, are more evocative of the Romantic and Art Nouveau prewar era. Apropos of almost nothing else except that this is a photo I think font geeks will love, here's a photo of a University of Chicago women's dorm room in 1899. It's on FB but in a public group.)

This is iconic Forest Service typography,

What is interesting about those is that it was now the era of mechanized routers that could follow a complex "cursive" pathway, even though such devices are mechanically similar to the 200-year-old autopen.

There was also by that time a clear attempt to "brand" the National Parks/Forests/Monuments and distinguish them somewhat from their state and local counterparts. As any traveler is aware state funding varies quite a bit and some are lavish and arguably better-funded and better-looking and have better signs than even some national parks, while other states remain with the cheapest and simplest and timeworn signage they can.
posted by dhartung at 12:38 AM on January 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


> NPS symbols are free and in the public domain

… and also locked away in proprietary file formats, dammit.
posted by scruss at 4:46 AM on January 13, 2015


National Park Service Graphic Identity

HIstory of National Park Service Visual Identity

Also, I was just reading (maybe on MeFi??) how the brochure design was developed by Massimo Vignelli, the modern designer of NY Subway map fame. It's part of the "Unigrid" identity element with the black bands and white lettering.
posted by Miko at 5:10 AM on January 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


My favorite Park Sign (in El Chaltén, Argentina)
posted by saul wright at 5:50 AM on January 13, 2015


… and also locked away in proprietary file formats, dammit.

Eh? PDF is an open standard, and Inkscape opens up the files just fine. That was one of the first things I did with the symbols, five years ago: open them in Inkscape, pick out a few I liked, and print them page-sized to hang on the wall in my son's room. (Yay vector graphics!)
posted by fings at 7:08 AM on January 13, 2015


Love the art deco look of this one from Colorado.

That sign is actually in Utah – just about my favorite part of Utah, in fact – but in any case, this is a wonderful post.
posted by LeLiLo at 12:01 PM on January 13, 2015


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