Look to the Unremarkable – Creating Public Slab Sans

Finding inspiration in the everyday details that surround us is an important part of our creative process at Public. 

We’ve always been curious about the spray painted street markings created by engineers during road works – the colourful abstract forms look like a kind of utility graffiti. We photographed the marks and amassed pictures of
a huge variety of symbols, shapes, characters, letters and arrows. Although indecipherable at first glance, it was obvious that the forms were part of a diverse, functioning language. 

We discovered that each utility uses its own colour and that – for reasons to do with safety and coherence – there’s a strict colour coding system: blue for water, yellow for gas, green for cable communications, red for electricity. Conversely, each utility has its own code list; there is no set language, no dictionary that everyone uses. The codes consist of a wide variety of symbols that denote different aspects of a project – the site’s parameters, size and depth; the positioning of infrastructure including lampposts, pipes and manhole covers.

We wanted to somehow bring articulation to the looseness and ambiguity of the marks. Through playing around with the shapes, refining and attempting to standardise them while retaining their hand-painted fluidity, the work eventually came together as a display typeface – Public Slab Sans.

The font is a sometimes discordant combination of round curves, square edges and sharp corners. Some characters, like the M, W and 0, are derived directly from found marks. Others draw reference from multiple different marks, and some double up as two or more characters. The typeface features 21 different arrows, as these are common symbols in roadwork communications, and some characters – such as the C – take their form directly from the arrows themselves.

Reflecting the hand-drawn nature of the original marks, some of the characters – like the C and D – interlock; others form joined ligatures when combined, such as TT, UN, TY and NN.