The safety of our roads is in many ways determined by the information we're given while we're driving. The signs that warn us when roadworks are ahead or inform us when to expect a turn off from the motorway, are a great example of information systems design.
In the late 1950s the UK’s roads were littered with a plethora of transport sign styles, each commissioned by various bodies at different times. To address these inconsistencies the government of the day decided to commission two graphic designers – Jock Kinneir and Magaret Calvert – to research and develop a completely new and modern visual system. The project was to be one of the most ambitious information design tasks ever undertaken in Britain.
Calvert and Kinneir had already worked on a sign system for Gatwick Airport, although Calvert now describes those designs as ‘fairly crude in retrospect’. Nonetheless, the Gatwick project was the beginning of long career working on transport-related signing design schemes for Calvert, many of them in partnership with Kinneir.
Working with Kinneir, Calvert helped to devise a road signage scheme of carefully coordinated letterforms, colours, shapes and pictographic symbols. The scheme was based on the notion of that each sign should be a map that is orientated towards the driver.
Calvert believed it important that the signs should be friendly and welcoming to motorists, whilst retaining clarity and impact. To achieve this a new typeface was developed – a refinement of the sans serif font Aksidenz Grotesk, but with softer curves. The font was subsequently named Transport and was used with both upper- and lower-case letters, departing from previous road sign text which was all capitalised.
The approachable and friendly presentation continued with the simple pictograms developed for information and warning signs, drawn to complement the Transport font. Calvert imbued these drawings with a personal touch that carries an irresistible warmth to this day. The cow which features in the sign warning of farm animals, for example, is based on Patience, a cow living in Calvert’s relatives’ farm in Warwickshire. Similarly, the school children crossing sign, previously featuring a boy in a school cap leading a smaller girl, was replaced with a picture of a girl – modelled on a photograph of Calvert as a child – crossing with a younger boy.
Road signs designed by Calvert and Kinneir
Central to the power of Calvert and Kinneir’s sign system are its clarity and consistency. All motorway signs are set in white text off a blue background; all main road signs carry a green background and white text for place names and yellow text for road numbers; and all minor road information is presented in black and white. Shapes are employed in a similar manner, consistent with European standards where triangles denote warnings, circles issue instructions and rectangles carry information.
The motorway standard system, which was the first to be developed, was tested in 1958 on the Preston bypass in Lancashire and approved for use. In 1963 the Ministry of Transport set up a committee to review signage on all other British roads and it was at this point that Calvert and Kinneir extended the system to major and minor roadways.
It is hard quantify the impact of these designs as they are now part of the fabric of the British landscape, still as effective today as in the 1960s. Intellectually rigorous, yet inclusive and engaging, the system developed by Calvert and Kinneir became a model for modern road signage in countries all over the world. It has been described as the first road sign system ‘in which visual and functional considerations were fused’. In particular, Calvert’s gently playful pictorial signs are now part of the common consciousness.