San Francisco’s Street Signs: A Visual History

Ben Zotto
8 min readApr 27, 2021

A Detailed & Illustrated Compendium of Recent Designs (1921-present)

The Cable Car Museum’s gift shop, wall full of decommissioned signs, c. 2019.

San Francisco’s signature street signs have gone through a number of subtle revisions in design and typography. I’ve written at length about the complete history of street signage in the city going all the way back to the Gold Rush era, and even created a font based on my favorite sign lettering style.

In this article, I’m going to go into a bit more detail on just the variants of signage and typography. To make the comparisons clear, I’m going to use the examples of signage taken from just one street: Octavia. There were earlier signs along Octavia, painted on gaslamps, but I’m going to start with the era of standardized citywide signage.

FUN FACT: Octavia Street is named for Octavia Gough, the sister of Charles Gough. Charles was a city milkman (!) in the 1850s who wound up on the committee to name the streets of the newly-annexed Western Addition in 1855. He named one for himself, and one for his sister.

Blue Enameled Signs (1921–1946)

These signs were introduced in 1921, and were the first standardized and city-wide street signs. They were designed to be visible to passing motorists as the age of the automobile got fully underway. Approximately 22" x 5" in size, although this seems to have varied a bit. Held in metal frames on a pole, no block numbering. The type of street (here “ST.”) was included.

The signs were porcelain enameled in a layer of white with a masked layer of deep blue on top. The text was 3" tall.

Typography used only straight lines and angles, curves are represented by chopped corners as seen above. Text used varying widths depending on the length of the street name required. This type style was common in wayfinding in the early automobile era, for example on the signs erected by the California State Automobile Association seen around the state at the time.

The blue signs are sort of a deep cut in lost SF cultural history, and although you do come across them, they’re uncommon. You can still find some attached to building corners if you keep a sharp eye out. They’re rarely seen for sale anywhere.

White Enameled Embossed Signs, Blocky Type (1946–c. 1952)

In 1946 the city redesigned the signage to even better acommodate the automotive hegemony. This became the archetypal design of all street signs since. These signs are larger, 33" x 7", with bold embossed text and a border. They were also porcelain enameled, white background with black on the raised embossed bits. These introduced the smaller block number indicator plate included above on the pole. The type of the street is no longer included.

The typeface here is a local, somewhat bespoke version of the lettering shown in the federal Manual and Specifications for the Manufacture, Display, and Erection of U. S. Standard Road Markers and Signs. This manual was first published in 1927 by the American Association of State Highway Officials for use on signage around the country, and revised again in the 1930s. It’s still “blocky” (look at the “O” and “C” above) but the corners use real curves, not chopped lines.

Local changes include a blockier “G”, and slightly rounded inner corners across the alphabet, probably to better control the embossing results. As part of my research for the longer history of San Francisco street signs, I reconstructed this local form of the lettering as a new digital font called Fog City Gothic.

There were six widths of lettering shown in the 1927 manual, and San Francisco street signage used (at least) four of those widths (known later as “series”). The text is always 4" tall.

The city stopped making signs in this style in the very early 1950s. They were still in service at least through the 1960s, but are no longer active. For many years the city sold decommissioned embossed signs through the gift shop of the Cable Car Museum in Nob Hill, so examples remain in circulation online and in vintage shops for collectors. This style is less common than the next one.

This example is photoshopped, it’s the one variant I don’t have a good photo of.

White Enameled Embossed Signs, Rounded Type (1952-c. 1960s)

The federal signage lettering evolved, though, and by the early 1950s, the Standard Alphabets for Highway Signs had been published via the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads. Although related to the earlier blockier standard, this was a well-designed, all-caps sans serif typeface. This was, finally, a proper set of letterforms detailed out with precise sizing and spacing information, intended to be adopted across the country.

It had six widths, known as Series A (narrowest) through Series F (very wide). This typeface is still in use today, 70 years later. It’s known now as the FHWA (Federal Highway Administration) standard alphabet, and informally as “Highway Gothic.” It’s the same lettering you see on all American highway and roadway signage.

San Francisco adopted the updated lettering, identifiable by its fully rounded letterforms: see the “O” and “C” above. The rest of the design features of the embossed street signs remained the same.

As with the earlier type, these signs are in circulation as collectible items and can be seen affixed to buildings, but have not been spotted in actual service since the first decade of the 2000s.

For some reason I can’t figure out, although there are many numbered streets and avenues in the city, signs for these are relatively rare in circulation when you’d think they’d be common. Perhaps they were less interesting to gift shop buyers than the named streets and ended up landfilled.

Mystery transitional variant: there were at least some late embossed signs that were pressed on thinner aluminum plates instead of steel, and the white background and black text were done with paint versus enameling.

Reflective Aluminum Flat Signs, All-Caps (c. 1970s-c. 2000?)

The embossed enameled steel signs eventually fell out of favor, presumably for cost and technology reasons. They were replaced with these flat aluminum metal signs. Same size.

The corners of the sign itself are no longer typically rounded, and the border is less chunky. The background is a silver-white reflective paint material.

The text is still Highway Gothic. The example shown here uses the widest Series F lettering (you can tell because the “O” is essentially a perfect circle, versus the examples above). The text appears to be shorter than 4" here — from this era forwards, the height of the text seems to be a bit inconsistent, leading to occasional odd squashing and stretching. The letters seem to be screen-painted on.

These signs are in various states of aging but are still in service and are very common, likely still the most common style found on city street sign poles. Decommissioned flat signs have not been offered for sale to the public as far as I know.

Retro-reflective Flat Signs, All-Caps (c. 2000s-2012)

The silver-white relfective paint was replaced with a 3M-manufactured brightly reflective film. It has a sort of zebra striping effect when you look closely. I believe the text is stuck on with laser-cut adhesive on top of the reflective background.

These signs now have various codes printed in small characters on the lower right. There’s a date code (month/year, this example from 2005), “C&C OF SF” (City and County of San Francisco, sometimes just abbreviated CCSF) and “3M” on there.

Retro-reflective Flat Signs, Mixed-Case (2012-present)

The city adopted the federal Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices in 2009, and this stipulated that mixed-case (upper and lower case letterforms) are easier to read than all-caps. So all new signs places since about 2012 have featured the same 3M reflective background, but for the first time in SF’s street sign history, now include lowercase letters. This is the first revision since the 1940s that provoked a response from the public because it feels different.

This uses the FHWA Series E(M) lettering, it appears. The rationale here is readability, but I’m not persuaded that in the specific case of street signs — squinted at from a block away, or across the street, or going by in a car — these are easier to read. The height of the text is still fixed at about 4", so the x-height of most of the letters is now only about 2.5". It has the effect of shrinking the overall lettering size.

Plus it’s nearly impossible to get a nice visual balance in the composition; when you use good conventional letter spacing, the word ends up tight and takes up a fraction of the sign width, but when you try to balance the overall negative space you have to add too much extra inter-letter spacing. The sign shown above valiantly threads the needle between the two extremes — a good result given the constraints, but ultimately less satisfying than all the prior versions shown above.

It’s worth reflecting on the fact, however, that the signature elements have carried through for nearly 80 years at this point: black text on a large white rectangle, with a rounded-rect border. This style is unique to San Francisco and because it’s old enough to cover essentially all of living memory now, it’s become a legitimate trademark of our urban visual environment.

For more of an urban history on our street signs, head on over to the complete Field Guide.

I write about the history of design, technology, and San Francisco. I’m a one-time typographer. All text and photographs above are copyright by me, Ben Zotto. You can reach me at bzotto at Gmail dot com.