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Vintage Fonts Go Digital on Buenos Aires Buses

by Bruce Goldstone on February 17, 2014

Two Buenos Aires buses, one showing the use of vintage fonts as design inspiration and the other showing digital fonts for clarity and utility.

Buenos Aires buses dressed to the nines on their way from Caraza to Retiro, old style and new
© Bruce Goldstone

Torn Between Design Inspiration & Utility

Buenos Aires is a city of kinetic visual overload, where color, pattern, and structure compete for your eye’s attention. One of the first things I fell in love here was the vintage fonts on the city buses. People tend to think I’m either kidding or crazy, but nonetheless, it’s true.

A source of constant design inspiration, the gorgeous graphics bundled onto a Buenos Aires bus pack a powerful punch.

Every bus line has its own vibrant palette, like rival schools sporting their colors. Strong stripes and elaborate, hand-painted designs called fileteado add to the impact.

And it’s all topped off with a big, bold number.

A Buenos Aires bus sporting vintage fonts that are a design inspiration. (Image © Bruce Goldstone)

A Buenos Aires bus is a design class on wheels.
© Bruce Goldstone

More than a hundred different bus lines cover the city in complicated routes that zig-zag through town. The number of the line perches proud and loud on the front of the bus.

A Number Is Worth a Thousand Words

Soon after I arrived, I began to snap photos of every bus that passed (while carefully avoiding being run over).

A collection of numbers in the vintage fonts on Buenos Aires buses are a design inspiration. (Image © Bruce Goldstone)

A number of bus numbers
© Bruce Goldstone

I took new delight in every bold or subtle variation, cruising the city’s streets:

  • The chessman solidity of the trapezoidal number #1
  • The thick, squat look of the extra-bold, extra-wide sans-serif #5 and #6
  • The delicate stroke that outlines the elegant #12
  • The jaunty snout of the 1 in #17
  • The rectilinear combo that gives #21 a modernistic flair
  • The voluptuous curves of #86, bold white on a sexy red background
  • The cheerful profile of the scooped twin 1’s in 115

Zero Tolerance

So, the first time I saw a digital bus display in Buenos Aires, I was horrified.

A digital bus sign in Buenos Aires lacks the design inspiration of signs with vintage fonts. (Image © Bruce Goldstone)

Where’s the charm in a digital dot-matrix font?
© Bruce Goldstone

The modern clarity of the neon green digits struck me as inhuman and charmless. There was no style, no effort, and no class.

I sulked for days.

I groused to friends as more bus lines began to make the switch from hand-selected, quirky typography to mass-produced digital dullness.

Then Again . . .

But then one night, things got much clearer. Or, rather, they didn’t.

Several hours after 11:00 p.m. (when the subways shut down), I was dutifully waiting, and waiting, for a #29 bus. Early on in my Argentine education, I had learned that you have to flag down a bus if you want it to stop. If you don’t hail the driver, he won’t stop even if he sees you standing there.

Finally, I saw a bus in the distance. Alas, it was a #22, a line that would take me even farther from home.

So I didn’t signal the driver.

As the bus went by, I looked up again and realized I’d misread the barely-lit number. It was, in fact, my #29. I stuck my hand out, but—too late! The driver passed me by. 

I Saw the Light

I had at least twenty minutes to think over my mistake, as well as my firm allegiance to dimly-lit vintage fonts of old. I began to rethink my aversion to digital fonts on electronic displays.

Now, whenever I see a night bus, I realize that its shining, vivid clarity has many virtues, not the least of which is visibility.

A digital font on a Buenos Aires bus may lack the design inspiration of vintage fonts, but is useful for helping you flag down the right bus. (Image © holgs / iStock)

I’m beginning to see the charm here.
© holgs / iStock

And so I had an “Oh, I see” moment that was quite literally about seeing—It’s a whole lot easier to read electronic fonts at night.

As I’ve come to terms with the new digital fonts, I’ve been heartened by another discovery. Not every bus line is content to stick with the simple, minimal dot-matrix fonts dictated by a small digital array. Newer models offer more complicated arrays that allow bus lines to choose their own, unique electronic fonts, like this elaborate #9.

A digital bus font in Buenos Aires may lack the design inspiration of vintage fonts but has the advantage of readability. (Image © Bruce Goldstone)

A nifty new nine
© Bruce Goldstone

I still love the vintage fonts that crisscross the city on many bus lines. They delight the eye as design inspiration for typography enthusiasts like me. But a bus passing in the night with its electronic display helped me get home, and that alone may be reason enough to accept the digital bus fonts that are taking over in Buenos Aires. 

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