How do highway signs get (incorrectly) made?
July 18, 2016 7:43 AM   Subscribe

I saw this remarkably borked road sign and got mildly curious for the nth time in my life about the process by which road signs get made, start to finish. What's the modern Big Green Road Sign production process, how has it changed over the years, and what, exactly, is the likeliest explanation for this particular fuckup?

For anyone who can't see the image, it's a picture of a green roadway sign from somewhere on or near US highway Rt 20 (courtesy of jessamyn, who was on a road trip recently), with white reflective letters spelling out this message:

Z H Confair

Except, no! That's not quite what it says, or rather that's not quite how it says it. Instead of a sanely laid out mix of larger mixed-case type on the top row and smaller all-caps on the bottom row, there's a couple letters swapped, so that it actually reads something like this:

Z H COnfAir

Somebody, somehow, got a lower-case o and a from the first row mixed up with the differently-sized upper-case O an A in the bottom row. And yet somehow the sign got finished up and printed and deployed!

Which suggests to me that there wasn't a whole lot of eyeball time on the sign during whichever stages of the process came between assigning the literal type glyphs to the sign and the sign getting printed/screened/however it works. (This is setting aside the dull explanation that it's actually just a 100% DGAF situation, which is possible.)

But I have no idea what that process is, and so now I'm curious! How does this sort of sign production work start to finish? What are the steps involved, and which are managed by humans vs. computers or printing machinery? At what point in the process was this odd error likely to have been introduced? If there are competing processes still in use, does the nature of the production error point to one or another as more likely?
posted by cortex to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Since these signs get made in small numbers, and in fact many of them are only made once, they are most likely not printed in any way. It seems likely that they are made by sticking vinyl letters, that have been cut out by a plotter, on to the signs.
If you're kind of a dolt or in a big hurry*, it's possible to mess up when applying the sticky letters to the sign; if you pull the backing paper (application foil) off too quickly, and the letters have not been pressed down enough to make them stick, it's possible that the letters stay stuck to the backing paper and not the sign. You would then need to position and apply these individual letters by hand, while cursing profusely all the time.

Of course, it's then possible to get this wrong.

* or both
posted by Too-Ticky at 7:51 AM on July 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

(Disclaimer: I'm not familiar with US road signs or the way they get made. I'm extrapolating from what I know about European road signs. The above information may be incorrect. US American sign makers may in fact not curse at all.)
posted by Too-Ticky at 7:54 AM on July 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

I don't know how the sign process works, but I have definitely seen that slip-up in graphic design, and I suspect I know what happened. Some fonts have capital and lower-cap letters, and some have caps only. Which means that if you start out in a font that has both, and don't push the caps lock button (which a lot of people don't like to do, because it can mess up functionality of other keys or lead you to embarrassment if you're switching between design and chat or email), you sometimes type using upper and lower case, LIKe ThIS. Maybe your finger slipped, maybe you just don't notice. But since it's an all-caps font, when you look at the screen you see it looking like it's supposed to, LIKE THIS.

But when you switch between fonts, if the new font has upper and lower case, it will revert to the way you originally typed it. So if the sign designer designed the file and sent it, and the signmaker received the file but didn't have the assigned font in his system so it automatically reverted to the default font, the error could happen and it's possible that no one eyeballed it before it went to print (because the file was signed off on already and the printer wasn't aware of the switch).

I am not sure how possible that is with road sign manufacturing, but it definitely happens in other printing (and caused us to have to re-do an awful lot of wedding programs a few years ago... aaaaaa!)
posted by Mchelly at 8:01 AM on July 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

My guess is that this isn't a manufacturing error, but fixing a damaged sign with replacement letters from a different set during a transitional point in highway typeface design.

A cursory look suggests that the small capital letters are from Highway Gothic, possibly Series D 2000 (look at the wide A), and the large lower case letters are from the temporarily approved Clearview (see the angle of the lower right terminal on the letter a in HIGHWaY).
posted by zamboni at 8:02 AM on July 18, 2016 [9 favorites]

There's also been a lot of font-switching in highway signs lately, so if someone pulled an old file, they might not even have looked at it when making the switch.
posted by Mchelly at 8:05 AM on July 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

There is a new highway interchange near Houston, where signs have been posted saying, "ALL EXISTING TRAFFIC MUST PAY TOLL". There were two signs, one in each direction. Enough people pointed and laughed that one of the signs was modified by having the "S" scratched off, leaving a blank space in the word. It is not hard to picture the sign printer making an error with a homonym, but the people who packed the sign, those who unpacked it, those who put it up, and those who worked at the ongoing construction all ignored the obvious error.

My only conclusion is that people see what they expect to see.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 8:07 AM on July 18, 2016

This blog post (featuring "Ballston Spa 1/4 MILF") mentions that the lettering is stick-on. So probably the signmaker pulled the wrong O and A out of their given pile of letters, or possibly some prankster decided to switch around the letters for funsies.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:09 AM on July 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Here is the sign in its native habitat, if people are curious.
posted by jessamyn at 8:13 AM on July 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

Here's a NBC Chicago feature on how IDOT makes their signs.
posted by zamboni at 8:17 AM on July 18, 2016

How highway signs are made, general process (in the second half, they show adhesive lettering for street signs).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:20 AM on July 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

A cursory look suggests that the small capital letters are from Highway Gothic, possibly Series D 2000 (look at the wide A), and the large lower case letters are from the temporarily approved Clearview (see the angle of the lower right terminal on the letter a in HIGHWaY).

I'm wrong about this, by the way - the entire sign is Clearview, with a and o transposed.
posted by zamboni at 8:24 AM on July 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

It looks like PennDOT vector cuts their letters, but manually positions them before attachment. Back in 2013 they installed six signs for Ephrata. Five of them were correct, but one read Epharta. At ~$1200 to repair that, they probably won't be rushing to fix a case transposition problem.
posted by zamboni at 8:34 AM on July 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I am a roadgeek.

In the US, signs and road maintenance are the responsibility of the state highway departments, even when the road is federally funded like an Interstate highway. (I'm talking about US, Interstate, and State highways here. Local roads and signage are usually maintained by the county or city.)

Sign standards in the US are governed by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, or MUTCD for short, which gets published and updated every few years by the US Department of Transportation. Currently, signs like this should be in standard English case, that is: Z H Confair Memorial Highway. Previously, it would have been in all uppercase.

On BGS ("Big Green Sign" - yes that *is* actually the technical term for them) assemblies, usually the letters are made of reflective metal that is riveted onto the reflective green background.

I can't see the photo of the sign, however, "Z H Confair Memorial Highway" is another name for the portion of I-80 that passes through Pennsylvania. So that means PennDOT has responsibility for the installation and maintenance of this sign. And state departments of transportation USUALLY are divided into regions (covering different regions of the state) that have minor things they do differently from other regions.

I'm guessing PennDOT Reigon Whatever awarded a contract to some company to fix this sign to replace letters which may have fallen off due to premature rivet failure or other reasons. And PennDOT is NOTORIOUS in the roadgeek world for being CHEAP. Likely, they awarded the contract to the lowest bidder, who subsequently paid no attention whatsoever to MUTCD regulations and now you have this odd mixed case.

This isn't, by far, the only occurrence of sign screw ups. Check out these discussion threads on a popular roadgeek online forum:

Erroneous Road Signs
Signs With Design Errors
The Worst of Road Signs
posted by tckma at 9:04 AM on July 18, 2016 [67 favorites]

Related, a recent article in the Philly Inquirer about misspelled street signs. Short version: signs aren't made by machines; mistakes happen.
posted by desuetude at 9:11 AM on July 18, 2016

This question may also be good to ask at the AARoads Traffic Control forum. The people there are serious roadgeeks and signage geeks. At the very least, post your picture to The Worst of Road Signs topic. They'll definitely get some enjoyment out of it. That thread is worth reading for some more bad road sign entertainment.
posted by zsazsa at 10:04 AM on July 18, 2016

tckma: I'm guessing PennDOT Reigon Whatever awarded a contract to some company to fix this sign to replace letters which may have fallen off due to premature rivet failure or other reasons.

Welcome to the PennDOT Sign Shop - they might contract some out, but making signs is often done in-house. I work in New Mexico, and not with our sign shop, so I can't speak to how often signs get contracted out versus getting made in-house, nor to the sort of QA/QC is done with signs.

And if you want to pinpoint which region houses that sign, here's the PennDOT regional offices map. Note: there might be a few different regions, as New Mexico has maintenance districts with slightly different boundaries from our other operations, due to actual lane-mile distances to cover from maintenance yards.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:05 AM on July 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

The image has since linkrotted away, but the Z H Confair sign appears to have already appeared in the AARoads Signs with Design Errors thread, back in July 2012. It's accompanied by another fine mixed case example.
posted by zamboni at 11:38 AM on July 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

No discussion of highway signage is complete without a link to Richard Ankrom, who fixed a confusing sign on I-5 in L.A. Mr Ankrom does not work for the DoT.
posted by phliar at 12:07 PM on July 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

My husb and I noticed a sign the other day in California for Ocean City, MD. Apparently it marks each end of route 50, although according to the site I just linked, its mileage is wrong on one end.
posted by routergirl at 4:36 PM on July 20, 2016

Given that the route is over 3,000 miles, it's quite possible the mileage has actually changed over the years as roadways get rebuilt, straightening out more to remove dangerous curves or expanding to include new interchanges.

That's why posted distances and mile post markers aren't exact - it's a huge hassle to fix or move every. single. sign if the road geometry changes (or worse, the beginning point gets moved out, making the route longer from the beginning).
posted by filthy light thief at 12:03 PM on July 22, 2016

Tangent: I had a similar question a few years ago about how random ditches/watersheds in the desolate California desert come to be named. They all get signs located on the (usually invisible) bridge feature that catalog and name the geological feature and type of road/bridge structure crosses them. Lots of pontification across the various places I asked, but the Los Angeles city Engineers eventually came through with the likeliest story: The US Army Corps of Engineers would have named all the features as they surveyed The West for the best trans-continental rail routes.
posted by carsonb at 7:34 AM on July 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I used to make highway and road signs for the Ontario ministry of transport - when the letters are cut and weeded and isolated for masking and application, they're together in a group of words that go on the same line of the sign. There's no way the person controlling the cutter would make a mistake like this, but it would be very easy for the person laying out the sign to do the switch on purpose. The fact nobody seems to have caught it before it ended up on the road implies a more loose style of job approval and supervision than the Ontario ministry - everything coming out of our shop (except mass produced silkscreened signs like speed limit and stop signs) had the foreman's eyes on it before heading out the door
posted by tehloki at 10:29 AM on July 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

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