Why the Same 3 Typefaces Are Used in Most Airports —

The science behind what makes the typography of airport signs instantly recognizable.

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Believe it or not, airport wayfinding signs are not designed to jump out at you. The Swiss type designer Adrian Frutiger, whose name‑brand Frutiger font is a print‑ready version of the Roissy typeface he designed for Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, once said airport type should draw as much attention as a spoon in a steamy ramen house. Airport signage is part of a transitory environment, and with type as the primary design element, the art is in its simplicity.

“It’s about the processing power that a brain needs to interpret something,” explains Sarah Hyndman, author of Why Fonts Matter. Unsurprisingly, a test by Heathrow Airport found sans serif Frutiger reads nearly two times faster than stylized Garamond Italic. Frutiger’s absence of serifs (little feet at the ends of letters), plus spacious apertures and open counters in letters like c, e, and s contribute to readability. The easier text is to read, the easier it is to follow, explaining why Frutiger, Helvetica and Clearview typefaces are used on an estimated 75 percent of airport signs.

March 24, 2021
A comparison of the typeface Frutiger 55 Roman against Freight Display

But readability is not the only reason. “Signs need to reflect the level of gravitas appropriate for the context,” Hyndman says, so they are trusted by passengers. Familiarity is another factor in that trust, says Hyndman: “Frutiger has been used for decades, it’s what we’re used to.” After all, if the sign directing you to baggage claim was printed in Comic Sans, you’d think it was a joke.

Easy Reading

  • Amazon claims its Bookerly typeface enables Kindle users to read two extra books a year compared to two other typefaces.

  • University of Michigan psychologists tested exercise instructions printed  in Arial and brush script. Those reading in Arial estimated the workout would be quicker.

Face Facts

The origins of the most popular airport typefaces.

A Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport sign in the typeface Frutiger
   Photo: Alamy

Frutiger

  • Based on the typeface commissioned in 1970 for the newly built Paris Charles de Gaulle airport in Roissy‑en‑France, Adrian Frutiger’s eponymous typeface was loosely, and fittingly, styled on the Concorde font. “What was important was total clarity – I would even call it nudity – an absence of any kind of artistic addition,” he says in Adrian Frutiger – Typefaces: The Complete Works. “Each numeral, therefore had to have the same clarity as an arrow.”
     
    AIRPORTS: CDG, JFK, LHR, AMS

A Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport sign in the typeface Clearview
   Photo: David L. Moore, Alamy

Clearview

  • As its name suggests, Clearview is designed to improve highway sign legibility. Tests by the Pennsylvania and Texas transportation institutes found that compared with its forerunner, Highway Gothic, Clearview gave drivers travelling at 45 miles per hour an extra 1.2 seconds to read the signs.
     
    AIRPORT: DFW

A Miami International Airport sign in the typeface Helvetica
   Photo: Ashok Saxena, Alamy

Helvetica

  • Helvetica was created in 1957 to answer a need for a neutral typeface that could be used in an array of contexts. Helvetica’s versatility gave rise to its ubiquity, from NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters to street signage in Latvia, including being chosen as Apple’s iOS default font until 2015, and as the official typeface of the Government of Canada.
     
    AIRPORTS: LAX, MIA, PHX, YVR