Sign language - Issue 104 - Magazine | Monocle

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Donald Meeker jabs his finger excitedly at a work of art in Manhattan’s Museum of Arts and Design (mad). He’s admiring a piece by Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, tracing the form with his hand. “They’ve had some remarkable shows here,” he says, a lopsided grin on his face. “This used to be a formal building with columns out front,” he adds of the former brutalist structure by Edward Durell Stone, the façade of which was replaced in 2008. “To make the building work they needed to open it up.”

Today mad is one of Meeker’s favourite spots in New York – a place where he can find inspiration at the point where the relentless din of Midtown gives way to the greenery of Central Park. As a graphic designer his job isn’t so different to that of the artists displayed on the museum’s walls: all are in the business of communication.

Meeker’s career spanning more than 30 years has primarily focused on wayfinding and signage. If you’ve navigated a US city, highway or national park, you have almost certainly come across his work – possibly without even realising it. His magnum opus is Clearview, created in collaboration with type designer James Montalbano: a crisp typeface for roadway signs designed for better visibility. The typeface started as a gripe with the outdated signage that Meeker saw in Oregon and turned into what he calls a “David-and-Goliath-type thing” with the federal government to get it on board. And it worked. The Federal Highway Administration’s signage manual approved trialling the new lettering in 2004. Though the typeface’s interim approval was suspended last year due to concerns over incorrect usage, all existing signs bearing Clearview will stay and Meeker is confident it will be reinstated.

At mad, Meeker explains that his love of wayfinding goes back to his boyhood in the Pacific Northwest. He made his first sign for Columbia Corinthian Marina 50 years ago, hand-drawing the letters and cutting them out with a band saw. He was also inspired by urbanists intent on improving his hometown of Portland, Oregon.

After studying fine art and graphic design he founded Meeker & Associates and, more recently, Terrabilt in New York State, and began working with US institutions from the Army Corps of Engineers to Yosemite National Park. He’s the behind-the-scenes guy working on fluorescent riverway signage that stays visible at dusk or creating clearer ways of expressing the danger of falling rocks. Why has signage held his attention for so many years? “Because it could be better,” he says. “If you develop a consciousness for design then other things will happen around it. One improvement begets another.”

Summing up his mission, Meeker says: “We work with agencies trying to make the world a better place.” And he’s determined to keep doing just that.

The CV

1947 Born in Portland, Oregon
1974 Attends Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, to study graphic design
1985 Founds Meeker & Associates in Larchmont, New York
2004 Clearview given interim approval by US Federal Highway Administration
2012 Work on type design acquired for permanent collection in Smithsonian Institution
2015 Wins Society for Experiential Graphic Design fellow award

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