Street Signs of Berlin

Is there anything that defines a city more comprehensively – and more subtly – than the simple street sign? As essential way-finding artefacts for pedestrians and drivers alike, the street signs of any city are under constant scrutiny, even if the information we take from them is often entirely practical: in the heat of the moment we look for street names alone and give little thought to anything else.

Yet in giving the street names a particular visual presentation, the signs of a city – their colour, shape, typeface and even physical location – form an essential part of the urban experience. Paris without its blue enamel plaques on the sides of buildings would be a very different place, although it might take us a while to figure out exactly what had changed; the economical green (sometimes brown) signs spelling out the intersections from the side of traffic-light poles in New York City are, in their own way, as iconic as the yellow cabs found only a few feet below.

Berlin, like any great city, has its own unmistakable style of street sign.

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The Berlin standard.

In fact, it has two. Conventional wisdom has it that street signs in the former West Berlin were written in one typeface – it exists in numerous weights and widths but is recognisable by its distinctive Eszett, as well as its ‘tz’ ligature – while the street signs in the former East Berlin were written in a no-less-distinctive but much narrower face.

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The highly condensed face of the ‘East’ style sign.

Even the method of production differed between the two: while the ‘West’ signs have the black letters placed on a white plaque, the ‘East’ ones are inscribed with a router giving them their unique rounded edges. Although the face found on the ‘West’ signs has become the norm in the unified city, there are enough of the ‘East’ signs still in active use to form a distinct geographical subset.

The division of the city into ‘West’ and ‘East’ signs, however, is only half the story. In fact, Berlin’s street signs are home to dozens of different faces, and even in the very heart of the city it is still possible to stumble onto areas where the signage has gone unchanged since the early twentieth century. Of course, before the Greater Berlin Act of 1920, many of the city’s most prominent neighbourhoods – Steglitz, Schöneberg, or Charlottenburg to name but a few – were independent communities, and the council of each town would have had the authority to impose its own system of signage. In some places those original signs still survive, and in others the old-style signs have been restored to their pre-war glory.

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Parts of Schöneberg have opted to return to an earlier style of blackletter signage. The use of blackletter is a fairly common way for older neighbourhoods to emphasise their age.

Although the official typeface found in the ‘West’ signs accounts for probably seventy to eighty percent of the city’s street signage, the remaining twenty to thirty percent offers a remarkable vista onto the historical and geographical forces that formed the city which exists today. The modern city may aim for stylistic homogeneity but, as is so often the case, it is the inconsistencies that make a place fascinating.

Baumschulen

The many faces of Baumschulenstraße. These three examples, all within a block of one another, demonstrate the occasionally baffling diversity of street signage in Berlin.

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Although sans faces (and some blackletter) make up the majority of Berlin’s street signs, the occasional serif may still be spotted in some neighbourhoods.

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The white on blue colour scheme, so common in Munich, is almost never seen in Berlin.

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A highly uncommon face for Berlin.

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Why are the two ‘S’s different? And what’s going on with the bottom of that ‘p’? Such are the mysteries and delights of Berlin’s street signs.

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Slab serifs from a previous age.

Köpenick

The historic old town of Köpenick decided to retain its old-style signs … but they ended up introducing inconsistency by using two very different versions of a similar Didone face.

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In extreme instances, one could place the street names in relief on the side of a building. The only problem which might arise is if the city decided to change the name of one of the streets: Maybach Platz, for instance, is now Perelsplatz.

The many faces of… is an occasional series on the Berlin Typography blog which seeks to examine how stylistic diversity may arise within standardised urban systems.

And if you don’t already, you should follow us at @Berlin_Type on Twitter, for your daily dose of typographic goodness from Berlin.

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16 thoughts on “Street Signs of Berlin

  1. Reblogged this on KREUZBERGED BERLIN and commented:
    Here, from our lovely friend and neighbour, @Berlin_Type (a cornucopia of knowledge on all things typeface) another great post about Berlin´s graphic side: this time on the local street signage. Which is as delightfully inconsequent and charmingly surprising as the city itself.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Steered here by Kreuzbered, I find another wonderful all you will ever need to know about Berlin Blog. Fantastic is all I can say.
    I would imagine that this place, like Kreuzberged, will become a favourite watering hole for my Berlin addiction!

    Liked by 1 person

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