Functionality Over Form

18 March 2016

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I admit it, I have a fondness for road signs. There’s just something that I admire about the simplicity and functionality. Everything has been considered; the background colour, the shape, the size, the font – something that, at a glance, needs to be understood immediately. Everything has a purpose. I was always told at University that a design is only finished when nothing more can be taken away, and this is definitely the case here. This has to be design at its most stripped back.

Into the unknown

Although it’s easy to glance at a road sign and think ‘I could have done that’, you have to remember that Calvert, and co-designer Jock Kinneir, were designing something completely new. The road network was going through a massive modernisation programme at that time and motorways were a new phenomenon in the UK. As a result rigorous testing had to be carried out to determine the scale of the lettering in relation to the speed of the motorist. The whole signage system had to be standardised from a complete mishmash of localised styles and adopted fonts.

Signage Testing and Development

The personal touch

The pictograms tell their own story too. I remember going to see an exhibition showcasing British Design at the V&A in London, a section of which featured Kinneir’s and Calvert’s road signage. I was drawn to a piece that described Calvert’s dissatisfaction with the initial design for the ‘Children Crossing’ sign, something that she went on to redraw before introduction. The revised pictogram is actually based on a real photograph of her and her younger brother. She commented that by linking the arms of the two children, it added a ‘caring’ element to the symbol. This was in an attempt to make drivers take note and slow down.

Children Crossing Sign

Still going strong

The amazing thing is that Calvert’s work doesn’t look out of place on today’s roads. It is for this reason, that UK road signs are a design classic. They were not bound to trends of that era and although (unbelievably) they were initially met with a fair amount of scepticism at the time of introduction, her work has stood the test of time!

The North

And my favourite road sign I hear you ask? Well, it’s anything that has ‘The NORTH’ on it.

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