Fun With Symbols

Creating all-new sign images for the new edition of the Manual of Traffic Signs has been an interesting experience. While many of the signs have retained the same layout and dimensions for decades, other signs have changed subtly or significantly in terms of dimensions, symbology, or other factors.

I’m working on the W8 series of signs, and I get to the W8-5 burnout Slippery When Wet sign. As I do for almost all signs, I look in both the 2004 FHWA Standard Highway Signs book and the 2012 Supplement, and see that the W8-5 was revised in the 2012 supplement. No problem. I open the 2012 layout, and see that there’s a revised symbol – the car is wider, the driver is wearing a seat belt, and the driver’s head is no longer a generic oval.

The page says, “See page 6-23 for symbol design”. But there’s no page 6-23 in the 2012 Supplement. So I go to page 6-23 in the 2004 Standard Highway Signs book, and I behold a slippery when wet symbol – but it’s the old one, not the new one.

I think to myself, “Will anyone notice if I follow the instructions to the letter and use the 6-23 symbol?” But then I think, “Nope, then the sign doesn’t match what’s clearly shown on the 2012 SHS Supplement page. Dang.”

So, how different are they? Take a look:

(red is the pre-2012 design, green is the current design)

Yep, that’s quite a difference.

Readers may not realize this, but every single symbol you see in my Manual of Traffic Signs website is an original vector graphic created by me on the computer based on official source material, almost always the Standard Highway Signs book. I don’t use scans or rasters in my source drawings – everything’s drawn as vectors and curves as exactly as my software will allow, and by me personally – I don’t use or purchase symbol libraries created by others, as I’ve found they can vary quite a bit from official layouts.

So now what? I need the layout details for this symbol, but the FHWA documentation doesn’t contain it, other than the symbol on the 2012 version of the W8-5 sign.

OK, if that’s what I’ve got, then that’s what I’ve got.

I made a high-resolution screen capture of the 2012 W8-5 sign, cleaned it up a bit in Graphic Converter, and then used the “trace” tool in my trusty ol’ Macromedia Freehand 7 software to trace the symbol into a vector graphic.

But even though the Freehand trace tool is rather talented (especially for a 25-year-old hunk o’ software), the results are never quite as exact as I prefer. So I zoom wayyy in and adjust the curve and line points to match the symbol as close as the resolution will allow. It’s not always easy, but I want to provide users with the best graphics I can practically provide.

I wrangled the graphic into acceptably good shape, imported it onto a standard sign blank, scaled it to the dimensions in the drawing, and then created all reasonably expected color variations (in this case, just yellow and orange). I then scaled these onto standard letter-size pages and generated .gif and PDF versions. And I’ll have to say I’m reasonably satisfied with the results.

But realizing that users might want the details for the graphic for their own use, I also created a “grid” drawing of it in a manner similar to the symbols in FHWA’s Standard Highway Signs book. I generated it as a PDF and appended it to the SHS PDF file for the W8-5 on the site. It may not be “officially blessed” by FHWA, but it can serve as a “stopgap” reference until FHWA publishes the “official” version (no, I don’t know when that might be either.) 🙂

There are a lot of W8s (31 in total, including plaques), so I’m hoping to have them done and posted by next week, as other activities (leading weekend rides for the bike club, rockets and other fun with the family, next week’s ITE/IMSA conference, etc.) will also occupy my time.

Thanks for reading, and I thought you all might be interested in the little “behind the scenes” glimpse into some of the challenges of creating and updating this website.