Forgive me for speaking in English, but my proficiency in Irish does not qualify me to address the committee through it.
I would like to speak about Ireland's dual language road signs. I draw the committee's attention to the document we have submitted which will give members a brief synopsis of what we have to say. There is also a larger report with which members may be familiar which I produced previously with Conradh na Gaeilge. It would be helpful, in the absence of a Powerpoint presentation, if members stayed with me as I go through the document.
My research was conducted with the National College of Art and Design. Initially, I was looking at the readability and effectiveness of dual language road signs, Irish road signs and other models internationally. Although equality of language was an element of my study which led to me being invited to write this report for Conradh na Gaeilge, my initial aim was not concerned with equality of language as much as clarity of signage. I was not even very aware of the constitutional status of the language, beyond a shallow knowledge of it. I only later became aware of the statement on language which pertained strongly to some of the issues I had been researching.
One of my concerns was that the Irish population was an ageing one. Some research in the United States on the clarity of road signs for older users was very interesting; some good work was done there in that regard. As I am a design communications specialist, I was concerned with clarity and effectiveness of design and wanted to find out if there was a new way forward and a better way for us to produce road signs. My research brings a number of these concerns together, some of which pertain directly to issues around the status of language.
If members turn to the slide that shows a typical example of existing road signs, they will see, surrounded by a yellow margin, an example of how the Irish language is treated. I have drawn attention to this not as a status issue but as an one of clarity for any modern language, European or otherwise. People want information conveyed in as clear a way as possible. When dealing with road signs, we are talking about diminished reaction times, asking people to make very rapid decisions for safety, good navigation and efficiency. Therefore, any corruption of letter forms such as those in the slide affects these decisions. The letter forms in the slide were designed by the British Ministry of Transport and brought into Ireland, but then italicised for Irish and, as I have highlighted in red, amended in the mistaken belief this would add some Irishness to the characters. However, the amendments made are damaging to the legibility, readability and effectiveness of the signs. Introducing such archaic letter shapes or other such things runs contrary to best practice. The use of italics on road signs is not seen to be effective. Therefore, the Irish language is diminished in this way.
While the intent behind the use of upper case English may not have been to make it more prominent, that was its effect. To be kind to the original authors of the signs, we must think their aim was to create differentiation between the two languages. Differentiation is good when used well. If one can discern immediately the words one seeks and the language one wishes to use, without having to think about it again, that is a good design and as a result, one's journey is much more smooth. Upper case is not the most efficient setting for signs, particularly road signs. It occupies more space which in terms of equality, gives English more prominence, but it also results in longer placenames being squeezed to fit on signs. There are many examples of this design fault as can be seen in the use of the words "CITY CENTRE" which I have surrounded with a yellow border on the second slide.
Insufficient spacing is another problem. What tends to happen is that in order to squeeze words to fit, the space between letters is removed in order to compact the word. This makes the sign more difficult to read and the time required to understand the message is increased. On a high speed road, therefore, one does not see the message, sees it too late or does not manage to discern it. As a result, decision time is reduced. Insufficient letter spacing in upper case is a problem, in particular, because upper case requires more space than lower case but is given less. Another problem is that word shape is a factor in legibility. When we look at words on signs, we see them quickly. We need to take in the whole. One of the aspects that helps us do this is the shape of words. However, when words are in block capitals, there is no shape to them and it takes longer to discern what they say.
Other countries have had to deal with this issue. I have looked at a number of these and given some examples in the slides. The slide on Wales demonstrates that it uses no differentiation in its signs. This approach is popular and some have expressed the view that in term of linguistic landscape, it gives equal priority. Taking it literally, this system gives equal priority because there is no differentiation. However, from a design and efficiency point of view, one can achieve differentiation without diminishing either language. Differentiation is desirable. If we look at the slides on Greece and Scotland, we can see examples of colour differentiation in use, successfully in Greece in particular. On the following slide we can see an example of colour differentiation with which we are all probably familiar. If one goes the wrong way in an airport, one has a difficulty. Many efficient airports now use colour differentiation in order that once passengers see what colour is used for their language, they effectively blot out the second option and follow the signs. We have good examples of how differentiation can be used efficiently, without sacrificing the readability and legibility of either language.
With regard to the ageing population, the CSO statistics suggest approximately 25% of the population will be over 65 years of age by 2025 or 2026 and that we will all live longer and continue driving. The difficulty in this regard is that US research in recent years recommended a dramatic increase in the size of US road signs to cope with a number of issues around an ageing population, not least of which is that a high tech reflective surface on signs bounces light back and causes a blur around signs, termed halation. Therefore, to improve legibility and cope with such problems, engineers have recommended the use of much larger signs. Thankfully, people in my field — information designers — found a solution and created a new font and typeface known as "Clearview" that is specially designed to counter these effects. It takes in a number of design characteristics which help to cope with halation. This development should be incorporated in future designs in Ireland. The slide to which I have turned shows a simulated halation effect of a typical US road sign. It also shows that some US road signs, particularly destination signs, used upper case letters. Most signs use upper and lower case, which is best practice.
On the following slide on the left side members will see the word "Cascade" in the new typeface clearview and on the right side set in the old typeface. The left side model resulted in an improved viewing distance of 84 feet which equates to 1.3 seconds at 45 mph. This may not sound like a long time, but it is a significant amount of time when it comes to making a decision about whether one takes the next junction. Having looked at the research in this regard, people might forgive those who cut across them at the junction on one of our roads. It may be that the road sign is at fault and perhaps we should give him or her the benefit of the doubt. Clearview also reduces the effect of halation, even without an increase in the size of signs. The study also stipulated the removal of upper case signs. It found that upper and lower case signs with the new typeface and word shape were much more effective.
There is evidence that our signs are getting much bigger, as can be seen in the sign on the slide on the new Cork road. It is a large and expensive gantry sign. If we are to prevent the need for signs to become increasingly bigger, particularly due to the projected increase in the ageing population, we need to address how signs are designed as opposed to just making them bigger and bigger. Cost effectiveness is also at issue. We must look at the best and most efficient way of doing things in terms of cost and result. Increasing size will not achieve the result we want. We will not have the physical area and space on our roads to create signs of that size.
I draw attention to some of the first steps towards better design. In my research with the National College of Art and Design one of the things we did was to create a number of prototype signs and refine and design a prototype typeface that would take on board some of the design characteristics other countries have used in improving their signs and use of colour differentiation. On the slide one can see the Irish words in white on the top and the English in yellow below. The reason we used yellow on these prototype signs was that it was an existing sign colour and not controversial. The aim of the prototype was to produce a colour differentiated sign. We tried a new approach and used a new typeface I had developed, called "Turas", for the purposes of this project. It optimised the letter shapes to deal with the halation effect and improve legibility. It also maximised the x-height. Forgive me if I am giving too much of a design lecture, but x-height is important. Sometimes people think that because upper case letters are bigger they are better because when something is bigger and afforded enough space it has a physical presence that can be seen. The ideal is that it have both a physical presence and a word shape.
Let us look at a traditional design from the "Transport" typeface, the one we use in Ireland in a corrupted form which was developed in the 1960s in the United Kingdom, and the new US design "Clearview", both of which display larger and larger x-heights, the height of the lower case letters. What these signs do is try to grab a greater physical presence for the word within the sign area but keep the word shape in order that people can recognise the word legend more quickly. I draw members' attention to another example. It shows on the right hand side, in blue, the "Transport" typeface from the United Kingdom and my prototype design on the left hand side. It can be seen from the blue bar that my design delivers that extra x-height which is critical in gaining the extra benefit of physical presence. It also delivers an openness of shape in the letters that will stop the halation phenomenon becoming a problem. The following slide shows a sign with a simulated halation, which has the effect of producing bounce-back from traffic lights on the reflective sign. The sign on the left, a new sign on the Cork road, shows how the letter forms are affected. On the right hand side the prototype example shows how the letter forms are affected by the same halation. The individual characters of the letters in the prototype example are preserved better; word shape is also preserved. Colour differentiation also functions.
In an initial and rudimentary test for clarity — simply asking people to view a number of slides in different contexts, legends and typefaces and say which they find clearer — some 58% of English speakers chose the "Turas" prototype. These results are included in the pie chart on the slide. This is a significant number because generally in research people choose what they know. The people who were asked were road users in order that what they see every day is thestatus quo. The initial reaction when showing people anything new is generally negative; therefore, it is significant that 58% of people who use the roads every day chose the colour differentiated design with the new typeface over existing signs. It is interesting also that they chose it overwhelmingly over the Welsh undifferentiated dual language signs, which confirms the thesis. Some 77% of Irish speakers — this was no surprise to me because the use of Irish is so diminished in the current design — opted for the colour differentiated signs. If I had to rely on Irish legends to navigate the country, I would be upset by the signage used.
On the question of arriving at conclusions from my research, a prototype and the recommendations I would make, as we do not live in an ideal world, I would recommend a fast track approach. I suggest we would conduct simulated testing. The facilities are available for this. I have spoken to people at the University of Limerick which has such facilities available and the interests of a chair who is the head of the ergonomics society cross into this area. He advised on some of the previous tests I did. We could quickly test a number of variants, form the research and trial on track, as happened in the United States which quickly moved to a track trial. I suggest one trial new signs on a section of motorway with the most successful of the outcomes. This is working in keeping with optimal design practice. Besides ending up with the elements I mentioned such as differentiation, we would finish with a research driven, well designed, efficient road sign system for Ireland. We would have visual expression of the language and its importance but also a visual expression of the importance of research and design and our knowledge economy, rather than something that was handed down and co-opted from a separate use as in the transport signs we currently use. Although we are in difficult economic times, this could be rolled out efficiently on a gradual basis.