It's one of those things you've seen your entire life and probably never thought much about. There's that iconic blue shield shape with a white number inside and a single word on a white background: "Interstate." It could've been so much worse.
Nearly 60 years ago, it was apparent that the United States would adopt a major new highway system. The law we now know as the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 hadn't even made it to President Eisenhower's desk before traffic engineers started to get worried about how to mark these new roads. And so the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) asked its 48 member states to submit designs. Out of the 76 total designs, most of them were pretty terrible.
Kenny Malone at Miami's WLRN recently spoke to the AASHO about the design process and managed to get his hands on a few of the original submissions. In Malone's words, "Apparently [the competition] involved a lot of giant letter 'I's." Because the states' entries were submitted on anything from paper napkins to full-sized metal signs, Malone worked his magic in Photoshop to show what these signs might look like on American highways today. One of the few exceptions to the "I" rule is Idaho's eagle design, pictured above.
North Carolina submitted this barber shop pole-looking thing. They picked those colors, too.
Malone described this losing design as "a skinny 'I' from Texas that looked as if it swallowed—and was choking on—the U.S. highway shield."
The winning design actually came from Texas, though. Submitted by traffic engineer Richard Oliver, its shield shape was meant to represent the authority of the federal government.
Oliver submitted his design in black and white because he didn't know he could use color, though the final red, white, and blue (above) is just what he'd imagined.
When looking at the failed designs, it's easier to realize how the Interstate's uniform look in all 50 states is actually a well planned and executed policy. There's even a book updated every few years that provides the design standards for the whole system, from the color of the exit signs to the size of the shoulders. It's pretty complicated.
And just think: Uncle Sam put in all this effort just so you don't get lost. Well, to be exact, your tax dollars paid government workers to put in all this effort, and hey, you still probably get lost. It looks good, though!