Aesthetically Pleasing vs. Useful

On a recent trip back to Michigan for the holidays, I noticed some changes to the local street signs that made me pause and think. You see, I rolled into town, marveling at how little things changed over the past couple years, and honestly judged my former home as behind-the-times, slightly backwards and in a state of decay. (Harsh, I know. Perhaps all the shiny newness of Denver had turned me into a bit of a snob…) Anyways, the street signs in question displayed typographic elements I typically try to avoid in my designs. They were set in title-case, with awkwardly loose letter spacing. The first letter was noticeably enlarged and stuck out from the rest of the letters. I judged the design as awkward, clunky and a typographic crime, especially compared to the neat, tidy uppercase design of some of the older signs yet to be changed out. The signs irritated me for a couple days, until I tried finding my sister’s house after dark one evening. Under the city’s dim streetlights, it struck me that the obnoxiously large first letter was like a little beacon in the dark and the rest of the letters were actually easier to read while in motion, at a distance. I realized what I initially saw as distasteful and wrong in many circumstances, was actually more user friendly than the older design, and it served as a stark reminder to myself not to judge a design until fully considering it’s context, environmental factors and use cases.