Another version of British road signage commonly used before the adoption of the Kinneir-Calvert system.
Each of Kinneir and Calvert's road signs was designed on a grid of letter tiles, like this layout diagram
The new road signage system fascinated British designers, as illustrated by this cover of the ICI magazine Plastics Today, 1965
Children crossing sign - the image of the girl is based on a childhood photograph of Margaret Calvert, 1964
Jock Kinneir + Margaret CalvertGraphic Designers (1917-1994) + (1936-)
Designing Modern Britain - Design Museum
Until 26 November 2006
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 (1917-1974) 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 (1917-1974) and his assistant Margaret Calvert (1936-). 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 mid 1960s. Efficient and elegant, their system was one of the most ambitious information design projects ever undertaken in Britain. It is a role model for modern road signage in other countries and is still in use today.
When he started work on the motorway signage system 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 him to produce the artwork, moquettes 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 British motorway signs 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 problem of motorway signage was so acute, 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 each sign taking the form of a map oriented towards the driver. 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.
Each letter within a sign was placed on a letter tile to determine the correct spacing – based on the width of the horizontal strokes in the Transport version of the capital letter I – between it and other letters. By treating each letter as a separate unit, the overall size of a sign was determined by the amount of information conveyed. The width of the capital I stroke was also used to specify the size of borders and the spaces between lines of text.
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 official tests took place in 1958 on the new motorway-standard road – the Preston by-pass in Lancashire – 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.
T. G. Usborne, the Ministry of Transport official in charge of the Anderson Committee, then formed the 1963 Worboys Committee to review signage on all other British roads. 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 European 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.
They 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.”
The road signs proved as efficient and popular as their motorway signage. 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 survived 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. However it is testimony to the rigour of Kinneir and Calvert’s original work that when the Department for Transport digitised the signs, it often drew on their designs. 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.”
© Design Museum
1917 Richard Jock Kinneir is born in Hampshire.
1935 Kinneir starts four years of study at the Chelsea School of Art in London where he specialises in engraving.
1936 Margaret Calvert is born in South Africa.
1945 After the end of World War II, Kinneir works as an exhibition designer for the Central Office of Information before joining the Design Research Unit.
1950 Calvert moves with her family from South Africa to Britain. After leaving school she enrols at Chelsea School of Art to specialise in illustration.
1956 Kinneir sets up his own design practice and teaches part-time at Chelsea School of Art where Margaret Calvert is one of his students.
1957 After winning the commission to design the signage system for Gatwick Airport, Kinneir employs Calvert as his assistant.
1958 The new motorway signage system is tested on Britain’s first motorway-standard road the Preston by-pass in Lancashire.
1963 After the successful installation of motorway signage, the Worboys Committee commissions Jock Kinneir to design a signage system for Britain’s roads.
1964 Kinneir makes Calvert a partner and renames his practice Kinneir Calvert Associates. Their principal project is the design and implementation of the road signage system, which continues until 1967.
1965 On 1 January 1965 the new road signage system becomes law.
1980 Kinneir Calvert Associates completes the Tyne & Weir Metro signage project.
1987 Calvert is appointed head of graphic design at the Royal College of Art, a position she holds until 1991.
1994 Death of Jock Kinneir.
© Design Museum
Jock Kinneir, Words and Building: Art and Practice of Public Lettering, Architect P., 1980
Phil Baines + Catherine Dixon, Signs: Lettering in the environment, Lawrence King Publishing, 2003
Rick Poynor, Communicate: Independent British Graphic Design since the Sixties, Lawrence King Publishing, 2004
© Design Museum