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THE GERMAN EU NUMBERPLATES: A TYPOGRAPHIC ROAD ACCIDENT? The FE font used on the new German car numberplates has split the nation - for some it's an 'affront to aesthetic sensitivities' (acc. Erik Spiekermann), for others it's a successful contribution to fighting crime.

We've all seen them - the strangely proportioned letters on the new EU numberplates on Germany's cars. The hunt for the laboratory which mixed this typographical Satan's brew turned up quite a story:

In the 1970s when the Red Army Faction was holding Germany in suspense with its stolen cars and forged plates, a graphic design enthusiast from Gaggenau in south-west Germany came up with a font that would be difficult to forge. He presented it to the Federal Highways Research Institute (Bundesanstalt für Strassenwesen - BASt). Then, between 1978 and 1980, type designer Professor Karlgeorg Hoefer (1914-2000) took up this idea, and together with the University of Giessen (Dept. of Physiology and Cybernetic Psychology), he developed the FE font (FE being the abbreviation of the German word 'fälschungserschwerend', meaning difficult to forge). By the time they had finished their work, the wave of terror had subsided and the numberplates kept the old DIN-standard font. Only when the EU suggested harmonising the design of numberplates across the Union, did somebody remember FE, and take it out of the drawer, a full fifteen years after its creation.

The first cars to sport the new-style lettering in 1994 were from Berlin and Brandenburg. This 'outing' was followed immediately by heated debate in the design world. The font's makers and supporters rose up in defence: Because the DIN 1451 shapes used on the old plates were based on a square raster, it was quite easy for someone to change individual letters and numbers, like an F into an E, a C into an O, P into R, 3 into 8 and vice versa. Also, the new font was supposed to be much easier to read by electronic data-capture equipment. The resulting font was non-standard, with each letter individually designed.

The upstrokes and the cross-strokes are of different weights, the round shapes have distinct variations and angles are gently smoothed. On numberplates, all the symbols in FE are 75 mm high, the letters are 47.5 mm wide, the numbers 44.5 cm wide. But here's where the objections start: the letters I, L, M and W forfeit their integrity of shape and the accented vowels Ä, Ö and Ü are shrunk in height. Shorter car registration numbers leave lots of empty space on the plate - according to the critics, enough for forgers to insert additional letters or numbers. And, as there is no uniformity of style, nobody would notice if one of the letters was changed - unless you happened to have the entire alphabet in front of you to compare it with.

One fallacy, incidentally, is the good legibility BASt claims for the even width of the characters. This ignores the fact that rhythm and contrast also have a role to play, even when identifying individual symbols. White space is just as important as the black symbols. And, indeed the FE narrow font (up to nine characters must be fitted onto the plate) really is a visual challenge.

Individuality has its price. Which reminds me: the fact that the representatives of the signmaking industry and their strategic positions in key institutions played a big part in getting this font accepted, is another story entirely...

Susanne Schaller
© usefuldesign.org
2002 05 14





SOME COMMENTS:

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What comes in my mind hearing about this discussed design, is the simple fact that aesthetical feeling changes according to the familiarity people have regarding a particular shape (or color, sound, taste...)_ So, due to its massive diffusion, I'm sure this typeface will soon became a "classical" shape for carplates and similar purposes_ Anyway, I must admit I'm still not ready to appreciate its aesthetical solution, but I hope burglars will...

Fulvio Bisca
2002 07 16

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The first time I saw FE, was on German cars (many Germans come to Sweden on holiday), 1998 or so. From the very first second, I was fascinated by the shapes. They were so irregular, macho and funny. I photographed all plates I could see, and built Sauerkrauto (http://www.chank.com/font_detail.php?sku=5267) font from the photos. When Chank saw my project, he said that I should create lower case also. And I did, and it was a good thing I did, because my lower case version is totally different from the FE lower case. This way, Sauerkrauto has a value if its own.

Martin Fredrikson Core
http://www.core.nu/
2002 06 06

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I think the FE font is amazing - just the fact that it's in public view is so refreshing. Designers tend to react badly to it for two reasons: they get hung up on all the formalities that they were taught in school, so they see it as a personal attack on their training, which it very well might be; and these days designers have a great deal of trouble coming to grips with functionality (as opposed to self-expression), since functionality reduces the "Art" in their field, noting that society now values Art much more than Craft.
The FE font is not as functional as its creators claim, neither is it as dysfunctional as some designers would so much like to believe (of those who even care about functionality). But it's such a unique marvel of contemporary society, it makes very me happy when I see it, right there in real life.
Cheers,

Hrant H Papazian
The MicroFoundry
2002 05 20

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What I think? That FE Mittelschift is fantastic, and it would be fantastic even if it wasn't studied for a mainly functional purpose. Erik Spiekermann has all the rights to find it distasteful. It is objectively pleasing and attractive. Maybe burglars will counterfeit carplates, but surely people waiting behind a car for the traffic lights to switch will have at least something visually exciting to look at (I love also Italian and American carplates alphabets).

Claudio Piccinini
thought@nettuno.it
2002 05 15

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