One of the most ambitious and effective information design projects ever executed in Britain is the road and motorway signage system designed by JOCK KINNEIR (1917-1994) and MARGARET CALVERT (1936-) from 1957 to 1967. Intellectually rigorous yet inclusive and engaging, their system has become a role model for modern road signage all over the world.
Determined to illustrate the haphazard state of British road signage at the turn of the 1960s, the graphic designer Herbert Spencer drove from central London to the recently opened Heathrow London Airport and photographed each of the road signs that he came across along the way. He then published the result in two photographic essays in successive 1961 issues of his graphic design magazine Typographica.
At the time, Britain’s roads were littered with a plethora of signs commissioned by various bodies. In the course of Spencer’s journey, mostly along the A3, he photographed scores of signs each bearing different symbols, colours and typefaces. His essays prove how chaotic and confusing British road signs must have seemed to motorists at the time. They also demonstrate why the need for a coherent and easily legible signage system was so urgent.
The government of the day took the unusual step of entrusting the development of the new system to the graphic designer Jock Kinneir (1917-1994) and his assistant Margaret Calvert. They devised a rigorous signage system of carefully coordinated lettering, colours, shapes and symbols for Britain’s new motorways in the late 1950s and for all other roads in the early 1960s. Efficient and elegant, their system was one of the most ambitious information design projects ever undertaken in Britain.
When he started work on the signage for Britain’s first motorways in 1957, Jock Kinneir was already regarded as one of Britain’s most accomplished graphic designers. Born in Hampshire in 1917, he studied engraving at Chelsea School of Art from 1935 to 1939 and, after World War II ended, was employed as an exhibition designer by the Central Office of Information. He then worked for the Design Research Unit, the multidisciplinary design group founded by the historian Herbert Read, before opening his own practice in 1956 and teaching part-time at Chelsea. Kinneir won his first big commission to design the signage for Gatwick, the new London airport, after meeting one of its architects Yorke, Rosenberg & Mardall in a bus queue. He asked one of his students at Chelsea, Margaret Calvert, to assist him with the project.
Born in South Africa in 1936, Calvert had moved to England as a teenager and specialised in illustration when studying for her National Diploma in Design at Chelsea. Kinneir employed her to help produce the artwork, maquettes and drawings for Gatwick. “A job like Gatwick meant something then”, she later told the design historian Rick Poynor. “It was really pioneering. You really believed in it and wanted to be part of it – not in the sense of glory. It was just simply thrilling to be building.”
When Colin Anderson, the chairman of the P&O-Orient Line shipping company read about the Gatwick signage in a magazine, he commissioned Jock Kinneir to design a baggage labelling system for P&O. Passengers often lost their luggage because porters could not decipher the old labels. In 1957 Anderson was then appointed chairman of the government committee formed to review the signing needed for British motorways and asked Kinneir to design them.
The government was planning to build hundreds of miles of high-speed motorways as part of an ambitious road construction programme. The existing roads could not cope with the millions of new British motorists who had started to drive in the 1950s as cars, such as the Morris Minor and Mini, became less expensive and more efficient. The plethora of different road signs was at best confusing and at worst dangerous to Britain’s motorists, and threatened to be particularly so when driving at high speed on a motorway. As the need for motorway signage was so urgent, the government decided to tackle it first before modernising other road signs.
The members of the Anderson Committee travelled around Europe to assess how different countries were addressing the problem. Mostly, they found illegible signs designed in capital letters as an after-thought by the engineers appointed to construct the roads. By approaching the problem from an information design perspective, Kinneir and Calvert set about developing a coherent system which would be as easy to read – and understand – as possible. Kinneir said that he started with the question: “What do I want to know, trying to read a sign at speed” “Style never came into it,” recalled Calvert. “You were driving towards the absolute essence. How could we reduce the appearance to make the maximum sense and minimum cost”.
Their system was rooted in the concept of many signs taking the form of a map of the junction ahead. Concluding that a combination of upper and lower case letters would be more legible than conventional upper case lettering, they developed a new typeface, a refinement of Aksidenz Grotesk, for use in the signs. Later named Transport, it is recognisably modern as a sans serif font, but it is softer and curvier than the blunt modernist lettering used on continental European road signs. Kinneir and Calvert felt that these qualities would make it seem friendlier and more appealing to British drivers.
They tested the signs in an underground car park and mews on the Knightsbridge side of Hyde Park and then in the park itself, where the signs were propped up against trees to determine suitable background colours and reading distances. The first public appearance of the new signs took place in 1958 on the first motorway-standard road – the Preston by-pass in Lancashire (now part of the M6) – and the system was approved. Despite the complaints of a handful of conservative commentators that the signs were too big and abrasive, they were deemed a success. These were soon imitated on some unofficial black background direction signs on roads in Oxfordshire, attracting censure from the Ministry.
In 1961 T. G. Usborne, the Ministry of Transport official in charge of the Anderson Committee, formed a committee to review signage on all other roads. Sir Walter Worboys was recruited to chair it, Anderson having declined the offer to reprise his role. Jock Kinneir was commissioned as the designer. In 1964 he made Margaret Calvert a partner and renamed his practice Kinneir Calvert Associates.
Adopting the same rigorous approach to the organisation of information for road signs as for motorways, they compiled codes of carefully chosen shapes and colours. The codes conformed to the 1949 Geneva Protocol of using triangular signs to warn drivers, circles to issue commands, and rectangles to relay information. Just as their motorway signs consisted of white lettering against a blue background, they used white lettering for place names and yellow for road numbers against a green background on signage for primary roads, and black lettering against a white background for secondary routes.
A major innovation of the motorway signs was the use of a new material for the white lettering. This allowed them to be easily read at night by reflecting light from vehicle headlamps back in the direction it came from. The lettering thus contrasted well with the blue background, which being non-reflective appeared black at night, and could be read from a considerable distance. The medium weight font used was ideal for this as the reflected light tended to halo, making the text appear slightly bolder. But the white background of signs on roads of lower importance had the opposite effect and tended to spill over into the black letter forms. For these a bolder font was needed and Transport Heavy was born.
Transport Medium (as it came to be known) was also refined and adapted slightly from the motorway version. The characters of both weights were given notional tile outlines to facilitate to their correct spacing. Whilst these outlines were equivalent to the body of traditional letterpress type, alternative tile widths were prescribed for particular combinations of letters, what we would today call kerning, to improve appearance and readability.
It is not always appreciated that the size of lettering used on traffic signs varies greatly depending upon the speed of traffic and how much information is shown. Other elements of the sign need to be scaled accordingly, and Kinneir and Calvert deserve as much credit for their system of spacing and layout that retains this proportionality as for the fonts themselves. They based their design rules upon the width of the stroke of the capital I in the Transport Medium font – a measure that would scale with the size of lettering. Thus the width of the sign border was specified as 1½ stroke widths, the route arm widths on map-type signs as 2½, 4 or 6 stroke widths (depending upon their status), and the gap between two unrelated blocks of text as 12 stroke widths
Further experiments were undertaken: trial installations in the Stamford and Biggleswade areas, and tests at Benson Airfield in Oxfordshire involved signs mounted on cars driven towards static observers, to simulate the need to understand signs whilst on the move and to determine reading distances for different options.
The Committee decided to adopt the continental style of using pictograms rather than words on the road signs, and Calvert drew most of the pictograms in the friendly, curvaceous style of Transport. Many of her illustrations were inspired by aspects of her own life. The cow featured in the triangular sign warning drivers to watch out for farm animals on the road was based on Patience, a cow on her relatives’ Warwickshire farm. Eager to make the school children crossing sign more accessible, she replaced the image of a boy in a school cap leading a little girl, with one of a girl – modelled on a photograph of herself as a child – with a younger boy. Calvert described the old sign as being: “quite archaic, almost like an illustration from Enid Blyton… I wanted to make it more inclusive because comprehensives were starting up.
Kinneir and Calvert continued to propose refinements to their work. In late 1963 a revised version of Transport was produced, with the lower-case letters enlarged relative to the capitals. Tests by the Road Research Laboratory showed the improvement in readability to be marginal, so this adaptation was dropped.
The road signs proved as efficient and popular as their motorway signage and elements of their design have been used in countless other countries. Kinneir and Calvert went on to complete other public sector design projects. The Rail Alphabet typeface they designed for British Rail was part of the ambitious 1964 identity programme that included cutlery by the metalware designer David Mellor and the rail symbol created by Gerald Barney of the Design Research Unit. They also worked for hospitals and the army, and designed signage for airports in Melbourne, Sydney and Bahrain, as well as for the Tyne & Weir Metro. Both Kinneir and Calvert taught at the Royal College of Art, where each had a stint as head of the graphic design department.
Jock Kinneir died in 1994, but his work has remained a lasting tribute to him. His road signage system has been modified over the years, and its devotees often complain that Britain’s road signs have become progressively sloppier. It adapted well to brown background signing for tourist attractions in the 1980s, but then suffered somewhat from 1994 onwards with the introduction of large coloured panels – signs within signs. It is testimony to the rigour of Kinneir and Calvert’s original work that their fonts, pictograms and most of their design rules are still in use today, having been built into the computer software used for sign design and manufacture. However, it is an unfortunate by-product of this digitisation process that some symbols have lost their crispness and distinct characteristics due to repeated retracing over the years. As Kinneir acknowledged, like all exemplars of information design, his and Calvert’s road signs fulfil their function so efficiently that the public tends to take them for granted and rarely acknowledges their design merits.
It is sad but true to say that most of us take our surroundings for granted,” Kinneir observed in 1965. “Direction signs and street names, for instance, are as vital as a drop of oil in an engine, without which the moving parts would seize up; one can picture the effect of the removal of this category of information on drivers in a busy city or on pedestrians trying to find their way in a large building complex. It is a need which has bred a sub-division of graphic design with more influence on the appearance of our surroundings than any other.
Text © Design Museum. 2015
Original artwork © Margaret Calvert. All rights reserved.
Contributor: Simon Morgan, Buchanan Computing