North America (cont.)

A Look at 3M’s Default Font for U.S. Digital License Plates: Why It’s Bad for Both Looks and Legibility

License Plate Fonts of the Western World    Page:  Intro  |  North America (1)  |  North America (2)  |  North America (3)  |  North America (4)  |  North America (5)  |  North America (6)  |  Europe (1)  |  Europe (2)  |  Australia & New Zealand

Negative reaction from public and law enforcement
to first generation of digital license plate fonts

Growing number of states using flat digital plates. To briefly recap the previous section, as of early 2011, about one-third of the 50 states including the District of Columbia had switched to digital license plate technology for their regular passenger-issue license plates. Several other states use, or are testing, digital plates for vanity tags and special issues while continuing to produce embossed plates for the bulk of their output for the time being. (If you arrived at this page from elsewhere, see list of both groups of states on previous page.) As we’ve mentioned, states making the conversion cite speed and flexibility of production, and perhaps economics, as the primary reasons. But the public, law enforcement, and plate collectors haven’t necessarily been that happy.

Both looks and legibility of first-generation digital license plate fonts are issues. While the flat digital plates themselves come in for a lot of the criticism where looks are concerned, the poor looks and legibility of the inappropriate fonts often used with the new technology are also common refrains. The reactions range from neutral or apathetic at best, in some cases, to negative overall. Whether the font in question is the dominant equipment supplier 3M’s default font (shown on Montana’s plates at the link) or others (the horizontally squished-looking numbers shown on Mississippi’s tags), the digital transition has met resistance from the public due in part to poor font choices that could have been avoided. The appearance issue may at first seem inconsequential, but it has alienated the public and led to poor public relations for state DMVs in some cases, and additional man-hours dealing with remedying such situations.

Delaware’s encounter with public reaction. For an example of the impact of public unpopularity, see this brief report of Delaware’s missteps with fonts (artificially compressed versions of Arial in this case rather than 3M’s font) when it went to digital plates in 2002. A later report from 2005 provides additional detail on the rebidding process the state went through rectifying the situation. (Note: link requires free trial to read entire article.) In fairness, part of Delaware’s problem was due to bumbling on the part of Waldale Manufacturing, the subcontracted license plates producer here as well. But the hassles the font problem caused the state’s DMV are instructive.

Legibility a concern for law enforcement. Complaints about appearance from the public are one thing, but legibility is a highly practical concern that impacts law enforcement, as well as restitution for victims of crimes in which vehicles are involved. Here, 3M’s default license plate font has gotten poor marks for legibility from law enforcement in some states. For an example, see plate collector David Nicholson’s capsule report of Indiana’s switch to digital plates in 2004 (near the bottom of the page).

3M’s digital plate system the dominant one in use. Why focus on 3M’s font in this critique? Although the core digital printing method used by 3M (computer-controlled thermal transfer technology) is common to the other competing digital license plate production systems produced by Azon (no longer in the market), Avery Dennison, and the John R. Wald Company as well, the majority of the states who are producing digital plates use 3M’s system. Consequently, aside from the lack of embossing, it is 3M’s default font (see the 2005 and later examples) for the large letters and numbers on digital plates that has come to most strongly define their overall look and how they are perceived at large. (For comparison, see Pennsylvania’s traditional font for its embossed plates, which is representative of the type of classic font used by many states, and which we will use for the comparisons below on legibility and appearance.)

Why does 3M continue to offer its default font? We don’t know for sure, but given the numerous objective reasons the font is inferior for license plate use (see the summary just below, or the in-depth comparison chart on the following page), the usual reasons companies make questionable decisions would probably be a good guess. Although 3M has supplied reflective sheeting for license plates for many years, often when a company is a newcomer to a market segment, as 3M is to printing license plates, some degree of ignorance, inexperience, or possibly corporate arrogance may come into play before they learn the ropes well.

Leaving aside the reasons behind 3M’s decision, though, below we show point-by-point why its default font is ill-advised for license plates — in both legibility and looks — and why if you are considering the switch to flat plates, you should use a better digital plate font. (Later in our look at flat digital plates here, we’ll cover states using digital replicas of embossed fonts and see better examples.)

Summary of problems with
3M’s default license plate font

3M’s Default Font

(based on Zurich Extra Cond.)
3M font specimen (uppercase and numbers)
Characters in 3M’s font that have noticeably modified forms compared to its progenitor Zurich Extra Condensed: 1 and I; E, F, K, M, Q, R, and W. Lesser modifications to: L, N, V, and T (mainly increased width to fit monospaced grid).
Keystone State Relative

(replica of Pennsylvania’s font)
Keystone State Relative font specimen (uppercase and numbers)
Similar to many states’ traditional fonts, Keystone State is less condensed than 3M’s default digital font with more interior space between strokes (“counterspace”). Even if artificially condensed to the same width, however, counterspace would still be greater because of its design differences.
Legibility Compared Using Blur Testing
Keystone State Relative font specimen (uppercase and numbers)
Blur tolerance testing (PDF, 56K) approximates legibility at a distance or under adverse viewing conditions. Which is more legible above, Keystone State (left) or 3M’s default font (right)? Note: All characters are the same height. An optical illusion makes 3M’s font appear shorter due to reduced counterspace.

Terminology note: While it may seem an odd term, we refer to 3M’s font here as either “3M’s default font” or “3M's font” throughout, because it is consistently referred to that way among license plate collectors. There is no other designation we have seen for it anywhere else, either by 3M themselves (which never seems to mention the font per se publicly), or the states that use it. However, we should mention that states who have used Azon-Utsch’s digital plates often utilize a font based on the same typeface that 3M’s is (Zurich Extra Condensed) as well. Since 3M, Azon-Utsch, and Avery Dennison’s systems are all based on technology originally pioneered by Vizzix, it is possible an altered version of Zurich for digital plates originated with them. Again, however, other fonts can certainly be used, and since 3M as the dominant OEM continues to use the font with their system, we’ll continue with the usage established by plate collectors.

The in-depth chart on the next page compares in more detail in a side-by-side format the characteristics of 3M’s font with the proven, time-tested advantages of a traditional license plate font. To summarize first, however, there are 3 major factors that can negatively impact font legibility and/or appearance:

  • Interior spaces that are tighter or less open. 3M’s font (see alphabet at right) has much less interior space than traditional license plate fonts (see Pennsylvania’s classic font just below 3M’s). Termed “counterspace” by typographers, the size of enclosed interior spaces (“counters”) of letters is fundamental to legibility, especially at a distance. Counterspace refers to both the size of closed interior spaces, such as the bowl of lowercase “a” or numeral “6”, as well as how wide any openings into other interior spaces are, such as the lower half of the lowercase letter “e” or the bottom round of the number “5”.

    The negative impact of reduced counterspace on legibility is for a simple reason: Less space between character strokes makes them harder to distinguish from each other as viewing distance increases, as they begin to visually blur together.
  • How condensed or “squeezed” a font is. 3M’s default font is very condensed — significantly more than it needs to be for the available space on license plates. (And in fact the typeface it’s derived from is named “Zurich Extra Condensed.” Note: Zurich itself is a close but not exact clone of an earlier typeface called Univers.) While the human eye is tolerant of condensing of lettershapes within limits without too much effect on legibility, excess condensing causes significantly reduced counterspace which will inevitably reduce legibility by a correspondingly noticeable amount.

    In addition, all other things being equal, overly condensed letterforms are less easily recognizable because excess condensing permits less variety and distinctness in lettershapes, since the cramped space available puts tighter limits on how much variation in form is possible. In tandem with this cramping of variation in form can be some degree of overall character shape distortion when the level of horizontal compression is high.
  • How “regularized” the font’s character shapes are. Regularization in font design means similar curves and stems that repeat nearly identical sub-shapes throughout the entire character set with few obvious or distinctive variations. While necessary to a point for design consistency, too much uniformity in design makes individual letterforms less distinct from one another. 3M’s font is highly regularized, with the consequence that when viewing conditions are less than ideal, confusion of very similar character sub-shapes can sometimes result.

Effect of viewing distance on legibility and font design requirements. Another reason 3M’s default font isn’t ideal for license plate use is because the typeface it is closely based on, Univers — which begat the near-clone Zurich, which begat 3M’s font — was designed by its creator Adrian Frutiger for reading up close as text, not for reading at a distance on signage. (License plates are just another form of signage.) Univers/ Zurich is a clean-looking font and one of the reasons is the highly regularized design. While this creates a high degree of aesthetic “unity” in the overall look of the alphabet, it can compromise legibility to some degree when viewing conditions are not ideal.

Extra-condensed fonts in particular are typically designed for use under more ideal viewing conditions, normally for printed text viewed up close, or else at a very large size when used on posters, banners, overhead signs, etc.

License plates are often viewed under adverse conditions. Under ideal conditions such as up-close text, issues that can affect legibility — such as regularization and smaller counterspaces due to condensing — have less impact. Where viewing conditions may be adverse, however, the effects become more pronounced. With license plates this is often what you have: An item that may be seen at a distance, perhaps in dim light or in rain/snow, in a fleeting glimpse of a car speeding away after an accident or crime, perhaps photographed by traffic cameras where blurring may be an issue, etc.

License plates are in actuality a form of signage because of the viewing conditions. Of particular note here is that Adrian Frutiger, the original designer of Univers, rejected it as inappropriate for signage when he was commissioned to create the wayfinding font used for Paris’ De Gaulle Airport signage back in 1968. This project turned out to be an early landmark effort in the design of typefaces for signage with optimum legibility characteristics in its systematic approach that specifically targeted and tested for legibility.) Terming Univers too “closed” a design, Frutiger created another typeface instead (now named eponymously as “Frutiger”) with more open features. Thus, as adapted for license plates use by 3M, Univers/ Zurich is a font transplanted from one intended use (text) to an unintended one (signage).

A further irony here is that a carefully conducted signage typeface development effort in the 1990s — which led to a new typeface called Clearview approved by the Federal Highway Administration for U.S. road guide signs — was based in part on legibility studies specifically funded for the program by 3M. Conducted by the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute in conjunction with the designers of Clearview, this study verified the importance of counterspace for optimum legibility. However, 3M was seemingly unaware of these points when implementing their default digital license plate font, since it directly violates the study results.

Classic license plate fonts have already been through an evolution specific to the task. Although there is no doubt room for improvement, rather than having been transplanted, traditional license plate fonts for the previous generation of plates were hand-drawn by people experienced in how license plates were viewed and used. These fonts were drawn more or less as blueprints or mechanical drawings, then used to create the embossing dies for stamped plates. Font designs were arrived at by trial and error over the years in response to feedback about legibility issues from law enforcement and so forth. For example, individual characters would sometimes be changed on an ad hoc basis to prevent confusion with another character (numeral 8 with capital B, numberal 1 with capital I, capital O with capital D or Q, etc.). Both the above factors — hand-drawing and incremental character changes over time led to more idiosyncratic fonts. Even if not perfect, they’re more legible for the given purpose, and tend to have a certain charm about them because of the design quirks of individual letters and the “old world,” industrial-era feel.

Better digital font alternatives. On the next page we compare 3M’s default font in a side-by-side chart format with Keystone State — a digital recreation of Pennsylvania’s traditional license plate font depicted above on this page — to examine in detail why such alternatives would be better. Then on the page after that, we cover the states whose Divisions of Motor Vehicles have converted to digital plates but are using other alternatives to 3M’s default font, plus a few tips for how other DMV departments might do so as well.

Next: Embossed License Plate Fonts vs. 3M’s Default Font for Flat Digital Plates — Comparison Chart (North America, cont.)

Previous: Flat Digital Plates in the U.S. — End of the Embossed Era? (North America, cont.)

License Plate Fonts of the Western World    Page:  Intro  |  North America (1)  |  North America (2)  |  North America (3)  |  North America (4)  |  North America (5)  |  North America (6)  |  Europe (1)  |  Europe (2)  |  Australia & New Zealand