The road sign as design classic

Composite of UK road signs

The Design Museum has added a motorway sign to its collection. So is British road signage a design classic?

There is very little to like about motorway journeys. Endless black tarmac, blurry white lines and fuzzy green trees.

Motorways are about getting from A to B in the quickest - legal - possible time. But have you ever spared a thought for the signs dotted along Britain's roads?

White lettering on blue signifies a motorway and white on green signals a primary route. Everyone knows that. And they'd recognise the lettering, regardless of where it was.

Then there are those familiar and friendly images for school children crossing the road and men at work.

Britain's roads look as they do because of Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert. The graphic designers standardised the road network, created many of its signs and produced two new typefaces, Transport and Motorway.

In the 1950s, road signs were a mess - a confusing and dangerous hotch potch of different symbols, colours and lettering. But more and more people were acquiring cars.

Potted history of road signs

Workers with a new 70 mph road sign in 1965
  • The Romans were probably the first to use traffic signs in Britain
  • A 1648 law required each parish to place guide posts or fingerposts at crossroads
  • During the second half of the 19th Century, caution signs were put up for cyclists ahead of steep hills and sharp bends
  • 1896 heralded the era of the motor car and some motoring associations started putting up signs
  • A committee chaired by Sir Henry Maybury brought in more signs in 1933, including "No entry" and "Keep left"
  • The first major reform came with the new motorways. Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert, his pupil at the Chelsea School of Art, are asked to create signs by the Anderson Committee in 1957
  • The new signage is tested on Britain's first motorway-standard road - the Preston bypass in Lancashire - in 1958
  • In 1963, the Worboys Committee commissions the pair to overhaul all of Britain's road signs. The new system became law on 1 January 1965
  • Changes since then include electronic signs, additional colour coding for routes, and tourist signs

Source: Department for Transport; Design Museum

As the government set about creating a brave new world of motorways, Kinneir and Calvert were given the job of making signs that could be clearly read in a split second.

Calvert, now 75, says they had to start from scratch.

"It required completely radical thinking. The information wasn't there in terms of reading distance, clarity and letter spaces. We had to make up the signs and then test them. It was instinctive."

They were tested in an underground car park and in London's Hyde Park, where they were propped up against trees to determine the most effective background colours and reading distances.

One of their biggest decisions, which caused upset among conservative commentators at the time, was to opt for a combination of upper and lower case letters.

"The actual word shape was the most distinctive thing because if you had Birmingham in capitals, from a distance, it's difficult to read but in caps and lower case you have word shape," says Calvert. "That was fundamental."

After the success of their big and bold motorway signs, the pair were commissioned in 1963 to overhaul the rest of Britain's roads. They created new signs and remodelled existing ones, based on the European protocol of triangular signs to warn, circles for commands and rectangles for information.

They favoured pictograms rather than words on the signs, and Calvert drew most of them in the curvaceous style of the Transport typeface. Many of her illustrations were drawn from her own life.

Very few people have heard of Calvert but her portrait is probably one of the most recognisable in the UK, after the Queen's on stamps.

The girl in the school children crossing sign is based on a picture of herself. She didn't like the grammar school overtones of the earlier sign, which featured a boy wearing a cap and carrying a satchel.

An old school sign Calvert thought this sign was like an "illustration from Enid Blyton"

"There was a different attitude to schooling coming in and I thought, wouldn't it be nice to turn it around and have a girl leading a small boy."

The cow featured in the farm animals warning sign was based on Patience, a cow on her relatives' Warwickshire farm. And Calvert is also responsible for the much-parodied men at work sign.

It has long been remarked upon that the man digging actually seems to be struggling with an umbrella, and Calvert wishes she had made the shovel more shovel-like.

Kinneir and Calvert's designs changed the British landscape and they became a role model for modern road signage all over the world.

The signs promote an image of Britain, says traffic sign designer Bryn Buck.

"Traffic signs are a brand like Armani suits. A sign for the M4 is the first thing visitors see when they leave Heathrow."

Design commentator Michael Czerwinski hails them as a success story of the modernist movement.

"We do not question them like modernist buildings and they have not been dabbled with as much as other things have. The fact they are still in use today says a lot about the success of the designs."

A 'men at work' sign in Berlin Spot the difference: A men at work sign in Berlin

The system has been added to and adjusted but the fundamentals haven't changed, adds Buck.

"By keeping it simple, it stands out and doesn't age. It is still informing people more than 50 years after it was created."

Transport and Motorway, which is used only for route numbers on motorways, are still the only two typefaces permitted on UK road signs. Transport is also used in several other countries, including Iceland, Ireland and Portugal, and in much of the Middle East.

Transport may not be pretty but it is one of the most effective and useful typefaces in the UK, says Simon Garfield who wrote Just My Type, a book dedicated to fonts.

"The last thing you want to do when you're driving along at 77mph is think 'look at that lovely L or T'. All you want to do is be told where you are and where you turn.

"The key is not noticing it. When you are designing a typeface for signage, you know you have done well when no-one comments on it."

Jock Kinneir, who died in 1994, was resigned to this fact. In 1965, he acknowledged that his and Calvert's designs fulfilled their function so efficiently that the public would take them for granted.

"Direction signs and street names are as vital as a drop of oil in an engine, without which the moving parts would seize up."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 262.

    Some years ago I attended a Road Safety Committe meeting where a fatal ceash was discussed. It was suggested that a warning sign be erected for drivers. When I pointed out that there were already over 40 warning signs so many that it was impossible to read them all before th bend I was over ruled by the Chairman. NO Clarity there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 261.

    Polish Memorial. Sign on theM25.

  • rate this

    Comment number 260.

    My most annoying sign - 'NEW ROUNDABOUT AHEAD'.
    They stay there for years!

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    My favourite road sign of all time is 'Heavy Plant Crossing', but sadly it was worded. I would have loved to see the pictographic version.
    Yes, ever since we first saw that sign we have been looking out for triffids......haven't seen one yet!

  • rate this

    Comment number 258.

    I do not celebrate the dreary, homogenized roadsigns we are now lumbered with; these designs are as bland and unaesthetic as Messrs. McDonalds' ubiquitous golden arches. If their only purpose is to allow people to drive faster and less attentively then they are also iniquitous. Bring back individually painted wooden signs that decay organically so as to employ more artisans.

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    Note how the 'stop' sign has become part of international linguistic communication; it's used in countries where the word 'stop' has no meaning.
    That must prove something about the resilience of these designs. They've lasted through time and moved around the globe.
    We are pretty good at such designs. The London Underground map has become a standard notion for such railways globally.

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    Driving into Northampton from the M1 there is a sign that says " for rugby follow" next to a picture of a rugby ball, I've often thought it would be nice to change it to " follow Leicester".
    A friend tells me that in Nottinghamshire, there used to be sign that read " Toilets and Gunthorpe"

  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    "In the 1950s, road signs were a mess - a confusing and dangerous hotch potch of different symbols, colours and lettering."

    Interesting, that doesn't correspond with my memories of road signs in the 50s. At least they didn't blind you with reflected light at night!

    Viv Stanshall's "Men opening umbrellas" was just one of many hilarious re-interpretations of signs - "Beware low flying motorbikes"

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.

    I remember the T-shaped "Halt - Major Road Ahead" and rectangular "Slow - Major Road Ahead" signs from my childhood. Arriving in Australia in 1964, I was taken aback by the red octagonal American "Stop" signs which I though weren't as polite! Other signs here, e.g. speed advisory when approaching bends, kangaroos or koalas crossing, are black on yellow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.

    I still remember the time driving up the M3 extremely slowly due to the thick fog. I saw one of the signs on the central reservation had something on it but couldn't read it through the fog. Very carefully, I got myself across two lanes so I could read what it had to say.

    It said "Fog".

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    #250, nowadays signs have to be both legible and resistant to tampering. I remember signs that originally said "Earley Gate" that were routinely changed to "Fartey Gale" until the powers that be repainted them using capitals. And the came Pac-Man was originally going to be called something similar until someone noticed how easily it could be defaced into something inappropriate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 251.

    UK parking signs are not great. A London council is fining me for a sign that says "Residents Parking" but also has a big blue "P" and the numerals 10am-5pm. I took this to mean that you could park there during those hours when residents where at work and bought a voucher. Big Mistake.London roads are often a health and safety nightmare, overcrowded, often badly designed and full of parked cars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 250.

    The late great Viv Stanshall (Bonzo Dog Band, Tubular Bells, Rawlinson End) had an album out in the early 70s called "Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead".

    A childhood favourite sign for me was "Please do not lean out of the window" on trains, which was customarily altered to "Please do not clean soot off the window". The age of steam had not long gone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 249.

    Modern signage which annoys: (i) Huge electronic sign with very small message saying 'sign not in use.' (ii) Huge electronic sign saying 'no reported incidents.' What a waste of time and energy and also they are unecessary distractions.
    And more...... why can't we have "no overtaking" signs for lorries during peak traffic times as they do on the continent? They actually work and are cheap!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 248.

    British roads signs are a design classic and wonderfully fit for purpose. However, I am fed up with the council cluttering up our pavements with hundreds of signs intended for non-pedestrians. Give us back our space. Instead of putting up hundreds of '20mph Zone' signs on the end of every road just stick a big "20" sign on the entrance to the town or city and make it the default speed limit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 247.

    Whilst not ingdetract from the work of Kinneir and Calvert, the Anderson Report acknowledged that they had built on the model of motorway signs in NW Europe - mainly those of Germany which invented the Autobahn. Likewise they were not responsible for the existing language of the traffic signs - the red-edged prohibition circle, blue background commandment circle and red-edged warning triangle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 246.

    One of my odder experiences was going to Hong Kong and thinking that their road signs seemed ever so familiar. Presumably a legacy of empire and British rule. Identical colours, font seems the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 245.

    I've long thought that Britain has the best road signs in the world. Oh, except around Northampton.

  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    Triangular warning - Round orders - Rectangular information. Regrettably the shape meaning is lost when a backing board is used for emphasis because they are ALL rectangular. They would be better if the same shape as the sign like a wide border. Did you know local authorities have had to replace large numbers of speed limit signs that had round backing boards because they are not legal?

  • rate this

    Comment number 243.

    Oh dear Calvert is right up the BBcs street, lefty

    Calvert thought this sign was like an "illustration from Enid Blyton"
    "Grammar school overtones"
    OMG we can't have that, lets go scummy


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