Smithsonian exhibit to feature work by Larson Institute engineers

University Park, Pa. -- Work by a team of highway engineers and designers led by Penn State's Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute will be honored in May when the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, unveils "National Design Triennial: Why Design Now?" The exhibition will be on display from May 14, 2010, through Jan. 9, 2011.

This fourth exhibition in the National Design Triennial series will explore the work of designers addressing human and environmental problems across many fields of design, from architecture and product design to fashion, graphics, new media and landscape design, according to an exhibition press release.

The Larson Institute team's design, featured in the communication category, is the Clearview highway typeface. Clearview was developed to improve and extend the legible range of highway signs for drivers. The new font increases sign legibility by 20 percent without any appreciable increase in sign dimensions.

Team members Martin Pietrucha, professor of civil engineering and director of the Larson Institute; Philip Garvey, a human factors expert at the institute; graphic designers Don Meeker and Chris O'Hara, of Meeker and Associates; and James Montalbano, from Terminal Design, will attend the exhibition's opening events.

Unique for its more open letter design, Clearview has caught the eye of a number of national media and technical observers. But this recognition really caught the team by surprise, said Pietrucha.

Implementation of Clearview on the nation's highways is already under way in Pennsylvania, Texas, Maryland, Alaska, Virginia and other states. The new font's advantages include improved safety and reduced stress, which are key concerns with the nation's population of drivers aging and driving longer.

The design is the familiar combination white lettering on a green background. "It still only has interim approval (from the Federal Highway Administration)," said Pietrucha, "and that's just for the positive contrast version of the font."

By Pietrucha's reckoning, the team's work applying Clearview to improve sign legibility is not quite done.

"We're hoping to begin some additional development work on the negative contrast version sometime this year. The negative contrast version would be applicable to a whole new range of signs -- everything from 'Stop' and 'Yield' to wordier warnings like 'Bridge Freezes Before Roadway.'"

The exhibition title asks the question "Why Design Now?" to examine how design thinking is an essential tool for solving some of today's most urgent problems; what draws creative thinkers, makers and problem solvers to this crucial field of discovery; and why business leaders, policy makers, consumers and citizens should embrace design values. Key developments across design disciplines will be presented through eight themes: energy, mobility, community, materials, prosperity, health, communication and simplicity.

Inaugurated in 2000, the Triennial series seeks out and presents the most innovative, forward-thinking designs at the center of contemporary culture from the previous three years. The exhibition showcases design solutions that promote environmental stewardship, social equity, accessibility and creative capital in more than 125 projects.

The exhibition opens to the public on Friday, May 14.

Organized by Cooper-Hewitt curators Ellen Lupton, Cara McCarty, Matilda McQuaid and Cynthia Smith, the Triennial will be "global in reach for the first time, reflecting the connectedness of design practices and the need for international cooperation to solve the world's problems."

"This groundbreaking exhibition gives voice to a revolution taking place within all areas of design practice, from how materials and products are planned and conceived to how goods and services are manufactured, distributed and reclaimed worldwide," said McCarty, curatorial director of the museum." 'Why Design Now?' takes a positive look at the intriguing and ambitious projects shaping this revolution."

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Last Updated February 23, 2010