Sunday, February 04, 2007

Invisible Numbers

A beautiful three-building set on Post Oak here in Houston is a pain in the ass. Designed by big-name architects Johnson/Burgee and completed between 1975 and 1981, One, Two and Three Post Oak Central represent really quite excellent architecture…and ignorance about the needs of people to find them easily.

For example, the Turkish Consulate is inside the building at 1990 Post Oak Boulevard. Google it and you’ll even find the zip code, so you can use Google Maps or Mapquest to locate it properly. But which of the three buildings is “1990?” One? Two? Three? Even after having visited this lovely complex a number of times, I couldn’t immediately tell you.*

You sure won’t be able to identify the correct building easily as you drive by at 35 miles per hour because the street numbers are not readily visible on the complex’s signage.

It is an act of architectural hubris (“Overbearing pride or presumption; arrogance”) to assume that people will be so familiar with your property that they don’t need no stinkin’ street numbers…just One. Two. And Three.

I’d been looking for an opportunity to point this out and it arrived via the AIGA’s Clear: Journal of Information Design. Paul Nini wrote, in “Typography and the Aging Eye: Typeface Legibility for Older Viewers with Vision Problems,” about type designs and sizes:

The population is rapidly aging and becoming a larger share of the marketplace. 13 percent of the population is currently over 65 years old. In 30 years that group will double to 66 million people. People change as they age. Sensory, cognitive and motor abilities decline. The built environment is not typically created with the needs of the aging population in mind. How does the choice of typeface in signage systems, for example, impact the older viewer who is experiencing vision problems typical to that age group? Are certain typefaces more suitable to the aging eye?


The writer is talking about type. He points out there’s already a type font for aging eyes, APHont, designed by The American Printing House for the Blind, specifically for readers with vision problems. It incorporates consistent stroke widths; a “j” and a “q” with underslung descenders; open counterforms; and larger punctuation marks.

As a designer – and a good one – Nini says that APHont may not be an aesthetically pleasing typeface, but it’s a starting point for accommodating the needs of aging eyes.

I’d suggest starting the process earlier: building architects and owners should decide up front that they’re going to put the street numbers…well, up front. Where everyone can see them.

Johnson/Burgee is hardly the best-known offender; try looking for a street number on a wide array of shopping centers and strip malls – if the little storefronts have numbers at all, they’re too small to be seen from the street.

At the beginning of World War Two, the British feared invasion by the Germans and so removed all the road signs in the country. If you’ve been outside of London, you’ll recognize that this act alone could have stopped the Wehrmacht in its tracks.

My plea for architects, developers and builders is similar to many clients’ cry, “Make the logo bigger.” Put the street numbers of your office buildings and stores where ordinary people can see them easily – and big enough to see from inside a moving car.
Boy – I’m glad I got that out of my system!

*Three Post Oak Central is 1990 Post Oak Boulevard. Top photo courtesy of Houston Architecture.Info; APHont from AIGA.

2 comments:

Susan Kirkland said...

Having worked with architects for many years, it really isn't a problem of poor design, but
cheapness. Architectural firms frequently don't extend their design sense beyond the building
and the landscape. Firms who do use a professional signage designer like Neumann--you know that guy, Kiki's brother. Most architects simply relegate signage to the apprentice architect or junior designer rather than hire a professional. It's unfortunate, but just like major companies think they can rely on their
engineering department for logo design (think of the Henley H or the old Brown & Root logo) architects think a designer is a designer, type education or not.

I will blog on readability this week--then you can cross-blog
me and we'll both have a topic.

Anonymous said...

Houston city ordinances require the street number appear prominently on the front of the building. There's even specifications on size and such. To get a new occupancy permit, you're required to comply, yet I see so many buildings without any address. It's a pet peeve of mine too, but I guess there's no teeth behind enforcing the ordinances.

-Ag