When we hit the press with the new Field Notes “National Parks” Edition Series E 3-Packs, Jim came up with the idea of making a water transfer decal based on park signs, “America’s Best Idea” – with a Wallace Stegner Quote – sets. in the rustic font that can be found on such signs.
A little online research found that many people were asking in many threads, “What kind of font is this?” Then a few posts from people who had tried to emulate it as a digital font and gave up. So it wasn’t as easy as downloading a free font from a shady website. We had to go back to the source.
Publisher’s Note: Buy any two 3-packs of National Parks before Monday, August 31st and receive a free official National Parks Exploration Vehicle Water Transfer Decal with your order. Details here.
Further investigation resulted in a number of official government documents on park signage. Last spring, the Federal Highway Administration’s Handbook for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (2009, revised 2012) offered us 862 pages and several hours of reading pleasure, which were indispensable for the production of the “Mile Marker” issue. This time I found a trilogy with equally interesting publications:
The National Sign Handbook, (Bureau of Land Management, September 2016, 118 pages) is a handsome document full of excellent color diagrams of park signage but did not cover the national parks themselves, which have their own signage system.
NPS UniGuide standards, (National Park Service, June 2002, 931 pages) came closer. After a few dozen pages of dry text, it has all the charts, tables, and graphs you would hope for, plus a number of wonderful watercolor-like illustrations by an unnamed artist. The deeper I dug, the more admiration I had for the team that put together this comprehensive and attractive document. The last 60 pages are nothing more than National Park and Monument names carefully put into a grid showing the appropriate scaling and line breaks in Adobe Frutiger and NPS Rawlinson, the font used by Terminal Design to replace the traditional Clarendon the park was created. All of this, but still no Wonky script we were looking for, nor the trapezoidal characters Jim and I had in mind.
I finally found it Forest Service Signs and Poster Guidelines (US Department of Agriculture Forest Service, October 2013, 681 pages). This manual was less elaborate than the other two. Much of the information from the above “standards” is a little less standard, with a mixture of DOT signage and other influences. The forest service seems to be full of jokers. I felt I was on the right track.
While leafing through (I had long since given up reading these giants page by page) my first breakthrough came on pages 1-14, a trapezoid with “National Forest” in this wonderful script. I went on hoping for a better reference and some background information about the lettering. Just a few pages of letter, I met the motherlode, pages 1-18 had examples of the script, clearly reproduced. Turning back a page, I learned that they are considered “logos”. and only six uses were allowed (National Forests, National Meadows, National Recreational Areas, National Monuments, National Volcanic Monuments, and Wilderness Areas). It also states explicitly: “Logos are drawings and were not created from a standard font.” That statement made me laugh because every designer who has ever created a logo receives an email from the customer asking which font This is. because they want to use their logo font for everything else too, which is generally a terrible idea unless your logo is in Futura.
So again, as I thought, it wasn’t going to be easy. They were drawn “by hand”. However, this was a major breakthrough. I was finally able to see them really clearly and see that they are clearly “no script”. The letters were wildly inconsistent in the best of ways. The baselines and x-height and the way letters were connected were reminiscent of handwriting, not digital font.
Better still, it was vector files! I could extract them from the PDF (using secret designer technology) and use crisp, editable outlines instead of trying to trace them back or “paint” them as a bitmap. Vector is my jam.
Secrets remained! Although words and parts of words (especially “national”) were reused in different logos, they were inconveniently stretched in several cases. While most were “flattened” into compound paths, the single word “Volcanic” (perhaps a newer addition?) Was made up of individual letters and was lighter than the others, with an outline applied to give it equal weight. I sent a message to Jim …
I’m pretty sure it is one or the other, and I say this with the utmost love and respect for everyone involved in creating these perfectly imperfect chunks of text.
In any case, I had what I needed to make my own logo using parts of the existing characters and some freestyle vector work. I was able to find or customize most of the letters I needed (the uppercase B is the hardest thing to make from scratch) and in many cases I was able to find strings of two or three consecutive letters to get the connecting dashes. Best of all, I was able to use different examples of different letters throughout the text to keep the silly inconsistency that got us all here. So in the end it didn’t take long to get the blurb we wanted, which was good since I had spent a ton of time reading all of these manuals and the sticker art was about to ship out.
We took a few freedoms in terms of color, shape, and type (Futura!) To make sure it’s the perfect balance between park signage and field notes, and sent them to Art Decal Enterprises to do their water transfer magic. We hope you enjoy this little bit of the repurposed, silly American guy as much as we do.
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