Margaret Calvert might not be a household name exactly, but if you live in the UK then her legacy is impossible to avoid. She was responsible for designing the country’s motorway signs in the 1960s, and they’re still in use today, almost unchanged. And if you’ve ever used the GOV.UK website for any reason, then you’ll be familiar with the New Transport typeface — another Calvert creation.
Calvert’s status as an icon in the world of typography is clear during her appearance at Design Indaba 2016, where she is greeted with rapturous applause. Being in Cape Town is something of a homecoming for Calvert, who was born in South Africa before her family relocated to the UK, where she went to art school and began her fifty year career. Taking the stage at Design Indaba, she says she feels “100% South African.”
In design circles, Calvert is known as the woman who invented Britain’s motorway signage system, but she is the first to admit that she doesn’t deserve all the credit; she and Jock Kinneir were partners, and they had a whole team working with them. It just so happened that Kinneir contracted the flu at a rather inconvenient time, and so Calvert was forced to give a presentation to the government committee by herself. She was in her early 20s, and recalls spending all of her money on a brand new suit so that she could “look the part.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Not to say that she’s been resting on her laurels since then. She has designed signs for the NHS and British Rail (don’t get her started on the subject of privatisation!) and the motorway signs were recently honoured with an exhibition in the Design Museum.
Calvert divides her life into two categories; work and play. They are both all about design, the only distinction being that she gets paid for one category, and does the other for free, or perhaps more accurately, for pleasure. As Calvert tries to pack half a century of work into a half hour presentation, her passion is undeniable, but she also lacks any hint of pretension. “Just be grateful that you’re alive and having a good time,” she says.
Not a bad mantra to live by, and it certainly seems to be working for her. Now nearly 80, Calvert shows no signs of slowing down. “I’ve never been busier,” she says, “so I’m just going to keep going until I’m 100.”