Counterproductive Airport Signage

  • Fonts in Use
Fonts in Use, Oops! | Yves Peters | October 19, 2008

When leaving for San Francisco yesterday I noticed some very ill-conceived airport signage in the departure hall of Brussels International Airport. Yet most of the wayfinding uses Adrian Frutiger’s eponymous typeface, a shining example of almost scientifically developed type for signage. Frutiger sought solutions for the multiple readability problems Helvetica presented when he was commissioned to design a way-finding signage alphabet for the new Charles de Gaulle International Airport. This type family would subsequently be named after him when the Mergenthaler Linotype Company released it for public use in 1976. Since then it has become almost as ubiquitous as Helvetica itself and knows many adepts; most notably Erik Spiekermann. When asked to redesign the graphic identity and information architecture for the Berlin public transport company BVG Spiekermann’s MetaDesign adapted Frutiger Condensed version and added true italics for his FF Transit.

Now you can imagine my dismay when I noticed the backlit signs above the check-in counters in the Brussels Airport departure hall. They are in Helvetica which already in itself is an incredibly poor choice for signage. It looks like they were cut out in metal and then stuck on light boxes. And therein lies the problem. Apparently the glue started to deteriorate – possibly from the heat of the lamps in the lightboxes – which made the counters slide down. With embarrassing results…

Check signage specialist Sander Baumann’s designworkplan for more airport signage.


  1. amazing! and very sad at the same time!

    Posted by Simon Robertson on Oct. 19, 2008
  2. Someone could easily make a whole book on the subject of Brussels’s embarrassing signage. Helvetica was also used for the metro, bus & tramway signage, set in CAPS, and mixed with Arial in some stations… A complete redesign of the signage system has been planned since, but its application is a long and painful process.

    Posted by Gregory Cadars on Oct. 20, 2008
  3. Thank you very much Yves for mentioning my resource, appreciated!

    The dropping of the counters with such a metal cut-out construction was to be overseen, with the constant warm lighting behind the (small) metal counter will make the adhesive (probably 3M468) warm and it gravity will do the job of falling counters. Previous signs from Abn-Amro Bank in the Netherlands where experiencing similar problems a couple of years ago, now the have changed the construction.

    In the book from Andreas Uebele “Signage Systems and Information Graphics” are some details about airport signage constructions how to do it properly (and proper typeface use).

    Posted by Sander on Oct. 22, 2008
  4. this really drives me crazy. How sad the ‘organisations’ don’t want to pay for a real work and just stick to the cheap ones, here we go with the result.
    Moreover, the brussels airport, my airport, the one i use the most, is the only one where i get lost, because of bad signage.

    Posted by victor miguel on Oct. 22, 2008
  5. I’m just back from San Francisco, and actually it’s far worse than I thought. When leaving the airport I examined the different instances of the Helvetica signage, and where the counters didn’t start sliding you can plainly see that they were applied by eye. This means that in about 4 out of 5 characters the counters are incorrectly positioned; almost all the lowercase “a”s for example are wrong. Urgh…

    Posted by Yves Peters on Oct. 25, 2008
  6. Too funny! :D
    And I don’t think I’ve seen a grunge font with this design idea. Yet ;)
    Missing/removed counters, yes, but not with “fallen counters”…

    I like what happens to the “e” – it kinda resembles the new norwegian “Posten” logo…

    Posted by Roger S. Nelsson on Oct. 27, 2008
  7. We should be careful not to blame large organisations too quickly.

    Certainly, typographers and design enthusiasts are aware of the constraints of signage, but the vast majority of the public is not, and there is no reason to assume builders and contractors, who have to train in many things already, have an opportunity to come across type.

    Unless a company is specifically hired to *design* a signage *system*—and therefore becomes morally bound to do a modicum of research—there is no reason to assume someone *building* a few *signs* with Helvetica is careless.

    Arial on laminated A3 sheets strapped to AC pipes with nylon ties is careless. Helvetica in metal sheeting may not be the best but it shows some level of care and thought.

    Posted by FJ de Kermadec on Nov. 9, 2009
  8. Helvetica in metal sheeting may not be the best but it shows some level of care and thought.

    No, it does not. Would I start giving people injections just because I can hold a needle? Designing and implementing signage system requires more knowledge than just simple mechanical skills. If a contractor takes on a project like this without being qualified, he is irresponsible.

    Posted by erik spiekermann on Nov. 9, 2009

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