Zurich Extra Condensed  |  1990, Bitstream staff, commercial.

Zurich Extra Condensed font specimen (full alphabet)

Font family contains numerous styles, of which adapted versions of the Extra Condensed weight (above) and Bold Extra Condensed are used by the 3M company for their flat digital license plate system.

About this typeface: The 3M company’s adapted version of Zurich Extra Condensed as well as of Bold Extra Condensed are its two default license plate fonts for the digital plate production system it sells in the United States. The two Zurich typefaces are themselves part of Bitstream’s larger Zurich super-family, a clone of Adrian Frutiger’s classic text type family Univers from 1956. While Bitstream is a top-rate foundry, their version of Univers, at least in the extra-condensed weights here, does not seem to be up to their usual standard. (The reason might be because it was one of their earlier efforts as a foundry.)

3M’s dominance in digital plates a step backward for plate legibility. As the predominant vendor of flat digital license plate production systems in the U.S., 3M’s default fonts supplied with its system (usually the regular-weight font based on Zurich Extra Condensed rather than Bold Extra Condensed) have seen widespread use in states that have switched to digital plates. This has had unfortunate consequences, since Univers/ Zurich was conceived and drawn as a text typeface and never intended for signage use such as license plates where legibility at a distance is crucial. On the one hand, license plate system vendors and Departments of Motor Vehicles seem to have embraced digital technology enthusiastically, due to superior flexibility in production and, sometimes — depending on how the overall production/ distribution chain is handled — cost. However, just about everyone else (the public, plate collectors, and type experts) has reacted negatively due to looks and legibility issues.

This is a worthy enough topic that we’ve devoted a separate discussion to looking at why 3M’s default digital font is a step backward for license plates in both legibility and looks, despite its digital format. Our point-by-point analysis compares 3M’s font with the state of Pennsylvania’s time-tested traditional license plate font, using a chart comparing the two faces side by side across multiple criteria that are key to legibility and appearance.

For further specimens or to buy this font:

Bitstream / (original foundry)

We do not sell fonts ourselves or field questions about them.

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