Thinking allowed — 09 March 2018

Sixty-years-ago on 5th December 1958 Britain’s first motorway was opened, at just over 8 miles long it was hardly going to compete with the German autobahns.

What did set the Preston by-pass (the first section on the M1) apart from its German counterparts was the signage which was designed by a young woman who possessed an amazing talent.

MARGARET CALVERT who for decades has worked from her Islington townhouse was recruited by respected graphic designer Jock Kinneir upon graduating from the prestigious Chelsea School of Art, and together they set about the task of redesigning every road sign in Britain.

Some might remember the old confusing signs, many of which defied logic without conformity around the country. For reasons lost in the mists of time, a school was denoted by a flaming torch with the word school in very small capital letters. There was a sign warning of an impending corner as if the road bent at a 90º angle. Steep hill would keep you guessing as to whether to apply your brakes or start accelerating for an ascent. My favourite was the picture of a locomotive emitting smoke announcing an impending ‘crossing no gates’.

Added to that many way markers were signposts of the side of the road, only visible if you were on horseback.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day 2018, and this woman certainly deserves her accolades, collecting an OBE in 2016 she was recently nominated on Radio 4’s ‘Women of the Century’. Margaret Calvert simplified and unified road signage. A school, understandably showed two children walking, the girl said to be based on Calvert herself, and the cow depicted on farm animals crossing, was ‘Patience’, a cow from a relative’s farm.

The most noticeable contribution to help motorists find their way, and in so doing reducing accidents, have been Calvert’s direction signs. The distinctive white on sky blue on motorways was chosen as blue is a regressive colour, appearing black at night. The green and white signs inform the driver of trunk and local roads destinations.

But the beauty of Calvert’s signage is the typeface.

The preferred typeface was the German DIN (Deutsche Industrie Norm) the plainest of faces used on German car number plates. Designing a new face to be suitable named ‘Transport’ took as a starting point ‘Johnston’. Better known to Londoners as the iconic typeface used on the Underground, the curve on the lowercase l is very similar.

But it was the simple truth that was identified by Calvert: Word recognition was easier and faster when upper and lower case is used. We seldom read an entire word before comprehending it, and skimming is easier when the letters flow as they do in a book.

It was decided that the information imparted by the signs should be legible at 600 feet, and according to Simon Garfield in his excellent book Just my Type, prototypes would be taken to Hyde Park and leant again tree trunks. Then Kinneir and Calvert would walk away from them establishing relative reading distances for each typeface.

Later airmen sat on a platform at RAF Benson would have a car approach with the signs attached to the roof to identify the optimum size and shape letters that could be seen at a safe distance approaching at speed.

In July 1961 typographer Herbert Spencer took the 20-mile journey from Marble Arch to Heathrow Airport, taking pictures along the route (something unimaginable today), he published his finding in the periodical Typographic. He criticised the complete chaos and lack of conformity which he described as:

An extraordinary barrage of prose confronting drivers with as much text as a novel, the signs were prohibitory, mandatory, directional, informative or warning . . . a remarkable demonstration of literary and graphic inventiveness in a field where discipline and restraint would be more appropriate and less dangerous.

This would ultimately result in the clear signage we find in Britain today, their clarity has been adopted by countries as diverse as Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Iceland.

So the report published recently by the Department of Transport revealing the number of unnecessary road signs had doubled in 20 years to 4.3 million stating ‘. . . become so widespread that it is verging on national humiliation’.

The report’s authors have suggested that nine in ten signs should be removed. Margaret Calvert is always identifying the incorrect use of her designs, for instance, the spacing of characters (kerning), how dismayed must she feel when much of her ground-breaking work is now largely ignored by most local authorities?

The road sign at the junction of unclassified roads beside the church at Kirklinton by Anne Burgess (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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