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Serifed wayfinding in Gatwick, London

November 1, 2009, 4:06 PM

This really drew my eye last night as I was checking out in Gatwick, London: serifed wayfinding.

How about that, these chaps don’t give a damn about legibility theories and it’s such a good thing they don’t, every sign looks so beautiful, friendly and comfortable to follow. Only ermergency signs are written in sans, mostly on green colour (did see one on yellow, but I think it was just a mistake), well differentiated from the others. Take a look:




Hey Ian, would be great if you could share more information about the legibility theories you are referring to.

Hi Iancu,

Nice photos, indeed I also found the legibility not so good and not all terminals have good directions. But the serif design looks nice, if you are interested I put my photos online here

@Sander, thanks a lot, I’m glad you took so many photos, I’ll be able to study the signs in more detail. I don’t know about their efficiency in general, they seemed to work just fine, but i did see some minor production mistakes.

@ Jonathan – usually, sans serifs are used in wayfinding because of their better legibility in display sizes – serifs are more appropiate for body text and such, more appropiate for longer periods of reading thanks to their “little feet”, the serifs, which tend to “glue” letters together :) DIN, Interstate, Helvetica, Unit or Info are the first typefaces that come to mind when talking about wayfinding. But, as seen in Gatwick’s example, serifs can be great as well, giving the whole system a friendlier look and of course, a memorable one — if not only for designers :))


Hi Iancu, thanks for the elaboration.

I was hoping you had come across any hard evidence or research to substantiate these theories.

As designers, we have perpetuated the belief that sans serif is more legible than serif. It’s become a mantra that few stop to question and our assertions have even found their way to international standards in the form of recommendations for ‘best practice’. But I have yet to see any conclusive proof.

The lowercase ‘l’ glyph in Helvetica is an example of a not-so-legible letter as it can easily be confused with an uppercase ‘I’ or the number ‘1’. The word ‘Illinois’ is an example where Helvetica fails in legibility.

Serif letters have more visual information to help distinguish between shapes of letters and for the visually impaired this could mean increased legibility and for those with cognitive impairments – increased recognisability. For people without such impairments – perhaps increased cognitive load would be caused resulting in insignificant increase in processing time.

A number of studies have been conducted that show no difference in legibility between Serif and Sans. A good summary is available at:

I like the suggestion put forward by Tinker[1] and Bernard[2] to justify the choice of serif or sans on the basis of aesthetics rather than legibility.

[1] Tinker, M.A. (1963). Legibility of Print, 3rd edition. Iowa: Iowa State University Press
[2] Bernard, M., Mills, M. (2000). So, what size and type of font should I use on my website?

Jonathan, thank you for the elaboration, I’m very glad you took the time to discuss this even further. And thank you very much for the article, it was very interesting and thought-provoking.

I think there is no such thing as “hard evidence” in graphic design. Rules are meant to be broken, to be perfected or to be proven obsolete. The first example that comes to my mind is F. Goudy’s ‘letterspace lowercase = shagging sheep’ rule, which H.R. Bosshard so gracefully denies in several examples in his book. Goudy passed away in ’47, while Bosshard was still a teenager. Goudy barely got to see the TV, while Bosshard most probably uses an email. It all depends on what your working environment is like and of course, on familiarities, just as the article you kindly linked concludes.

Modern typefaces are no longer created like in the old days of stone and wood carvings. Serif typefaces nowadays do not have serifs as left-overs or corrections made by the carvers, they have them as differentiation-means. Take for instance Meta Serif, it’s a serifed made after a sans — wonder what Goudy would say. Probably “Grotesque!!!” :))

I think that it all comes down to what the designer wants to express through the typefaces that he uses. Sans or serif is of no importance, coherence in style and especially in communication is.


I heard Gerard Unger speaking about that sign and he said that, although the serif isn’t very legible (I personally don’t even like its appearance very much) it does have a British feel.

I have to agree to him. Nowadays, when arriving in an airport, you can’t really tell where you are. You can be on any airport in the world reading signs set in Frutiger, for example. I think designers should probably worry about the feel of the place to some extent, not only about legibility.

Also, the idea that serifs were just left-overs or corrections made by carvers, its just a speculation. There are several theories on the origin of serifs and this one is the least credible.

Another idea: most times, sans serifs are preferred to serifs in signage design as a matter of economy. Sans serifs take less space, so the signs are smaller.

Very good point Catalina, wayfinding systems also need personality, not only functionalism. Otherwise we’ll all be looking at Helvetica, Interstate, DIN or Frutiger plates, no matter the city or country.

Serifs being leftovers from carving might prove to be speculation, but the serifs left by the nib surely aren’t, as the old scribs tied the letters just like in script. Or so it is said :)

I don’t really think sanserifs are narrower than serifs, there are plenty of counter-examples, but sanserifs are surely less ‘ornated’, making them a little more faster to read — one can argue that well-designed serifs might be just as legible as most sanserifs, but a circle and a stick next to it surely remain just that, a very simple and fast way to draw a letter — and no research can prove this wrong.

Welcome and thanks for the comment :)


As far as I know, the first serifs ever seen are dated 340 BC on an inscription in a temple of Priene. The letters (greek of course) were geometrical and mono line and had little serifs. This is when the speculation about the carvers correction started. It is hard to believe that a stone carver working for a temple inscription could make these kind of errors.

Another idea (it is more believable) is that the serifs could be an influence of another dominant script of that time that influenced the greek alphabet: the cuneiforms.
More about the history of letterform you can read on James Mosley’s blog. He is ‘the father of all knowledge’ when it comes to this field.

The serifs’ cuneiform provenience sounds very plausible, it’s very interesting :) I’m also curious about chinese characters, they have been doing them by brush for millenia now, and they have very interesting strokes, resembling serifs (when you start a stroke you usually create a serif-like form and then you proceed with the stroke itself, sometimes covering the begining, sometimes not).

Thanks for the blog, I’ll add it to my feeds.


I noticed this too last year on a trip to London via Gatwick and really like the change of pace with the rest of the signage in London.

All I saw was Helvetica and every now and then I was relieved to see something in Gill Sans. Not knocking Helvetica but there are other typefaces in the world.

I love the new slab serifs such as Guardian, Stag and Meta Serif by Christian Schwartz and Co. as well as Soho, Unit Slab and many others.

I can easily envision a world with more signage in these fonts.

I agree, wayfinding should see more typefaces, there are plenty now (unlike 30 or 40 years ago, when Helvetica, Interstate, DIN and a very few more where the only choices).

I really like the new American highway typeface, the one replacing Interstate in several states, Clearview it’s the name — there seems to be a second one, called Highway Gothic, but I can’t seem to find more info.

Thanks for reading and for your thoughts. Cheers!


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