British Road Signs

We see them every day but how much do you know about the design of these important signs?

Over 50 years of successful signs

  • 1965
    The road signage system created by London designers Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert was launched and used on all British roads on 1 January 1965.
  • 2 Typefaces
    Kinneir and Calvert designed the Motorway and Transport typefaces to use on all signs. Both mix upper and lower-case letters which helps people recognise words faster than when they are written using only capital letters.
  • 3 Shapes
    There are three basic types of road signs and each type has a different shape. Circles are used for signs that give orders, triangles are used for signs that warn you about something and rectangles are used for signs that give you information.

What's the story?

Mile-a-minute typography

This was the title of the series of photos graphic designer Herbert Spencer published in his magazine Typographica in 1961. Spencer drove from central London to Heathrow airport and took pictures of every road sign he saw along the way. The photos showed how confusing signs were at the time - each one used different typefaces, symbols and colours. The number of cars on the road was increasing and it was obvious that Britain needed an understandable and easy to read system of road signs.

“What do I want to know, trying to read a sign at speed?” Jock Kinneir

The government gave this huge project to the graphic designer Jock Kinneir and his assistant Margaret Calvert who had just finished creating the signs for the UK motorway system. By carefully coordinating lettering, colours, shapes and symbols, the pair created a system that has inspired modern road signs around the world. Pictures instead of words were used on many signs and the girl in the Children Crossing sign is based on an image of Margaret Calvert as a child.

What can I do?

DISCUSS: What road signs do you see on your way to school? Do you know what they all mean?

RESEARCH: Find pictures of road signs from other countries and compare them to British ones. What are the similarities and differences?

DO: Design your own road sign. Be creative but keep it simple. Think carefully about colours and shapes.

Some signs are different shapes to the three most used circle, triangle and rectangle. This is to make them more visible. Can you think of two examples?

The STOP sign is an octagon and the GIVE WAY sign is an upside down triangle.

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