Margaret Calvert finds driving down the motorway an infuriating experience. It’s not the tailgaters or the traffic that exasperates the 79-year-old designer, but the signs. “It’s been a nightmare all my life,” she laughs, only half-joking. “I am always plagued by the sloppiness of something not being done well – the spacing being wrong, for instance.”
More than half a century ago, Calvert, along with her colleague Jock Kinneir, took on what he called “possibly the biggest graphic design job ever” – creating a new signage system for Britain’s roads.
Calvert was fresh out of the Chelsea School of Art (where Kinneir had been her tutor) when the pair were asked to design signs for the first motorway in the UK. Sleek, modern and made to signal “a common language” with Europe, they were colour-coded, easy to read at speed (the 70mph limit was not yet in place), distinctive and uncluttered.
Then, when the government became worried about the state of the nation’s roads – whose signs were a jumble of words, fonts and styles – the duo were asked to do the same for all national roads.
Today, their triangles warning of children crossing or slippery surfaces, and circles prohibiting right turns, have become such an integral part of the national landscape it is hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. Although they may not have the glamour of other iconic British designs, it’s easy to see what designers find so impressive in the pleasing simplicity of their arrows, and the surprising loveliness of their running deer.
Now, their work is being celebrated in a 50th-anniversary show at the Design Museum. Fifty artists and designers, from Terence Conran to Betty Jackson, have made their own signs – and Calvert herself is planning to pepper a sign with 50 bullet holes. The idea came to her after she heard that gangsters use them as target practice. “If you want to be serious,” she tells me, “it means don’t shoot at road signs!”
Talking at her Islington studio about how the pair chose the sky blue of our motorway signs (a recessive colour that fits well in the landscape) or the typefaces they created (two, Transport and Motorway), Calvert herself is unfailingly modest.
“We never decided, ‘Oh, let’s brand the United Kingdom’,” she says, “but as with London black cabs and red buses …” She trails off, too unassuming to continue.
At the time, neither Calvert nor Kinneir could drive, but she says this never mattered. “You thought of everything from the standpoint of: ‘What if I am at the wheel, doing speeds of over 70mph?’”
Previously, they had worked on Gatwick airport’s signs and graphics, after Kinneir spotted Calvert’s enthusiasm at art school. Calvert would come in early on the days he was teaching, and “work intensely” on the projects he gave her. “I like the idea of designing for the larger public … Design is a service,” she explains. “The term graphic design didn’t exist then. They called it commercial art. It’s not designing from a fashion point of view, it’s purely logic, function and aesthetics. And you can’t get simpler.”
The lettering and sizing were all tested – sometimes using airmen at a field in Oxfordshire as test subjects. “They put these signs on a car, and the airmen sat on a platform. They had to say when they could read the word on it as it drove towards them.” she explains.
Calvert and Kinneir then had to present their signs to a committee. “They were quite rude about one I had done – the pedestrian crossing,” she remembers, smiling. “They said it looked like a diver coming out the sea – I had got the proportion of the head to the body wrong.”
Even now, she says, she is not happy with it, complaining about the fussiness of a cuff, and wishing she had stripped it back more.
The hardest, but most satisfying sign, she says, is the “children crossing”. “The first school sign was a torch, then a boy followed by a girl with a satchel – it looked very grammar school. I wanted it to look more inclusive so you couldn’t tell if it was secondary modern or grammar. And I wanted it to be more caring – so I made the little girl lead the little boy. But it needed to have something urgent about it.”
Calvert says that while one-way signs and directions were rendered in arrows, she did not want the pictograms to be abstract. “I wanted them to be more human, figurative. I think they have more personality.” She based the little girl on pictures of herself as a child – although slightly chubbier, and the cow pictogram on an animal called Patience on her cousin’s farm.
Although hailed as design classics today, the reaction at the time was not all positive. Calvert laughs as she remembers how much of the coverage of their work was pushed off the front pages to make way for news of the Profumo affair.
“There was a big reaction, with the traditionalists against the lettering, and the size of the signs,” she says. Other designers however, approved of their modernity – although there were jokes that the uneven roads sign was an image of Diana Dors’ breasts, and the one for roadworks looked like a man opening an umbrella.
When she first drove along a stretch of unopened motorway to see the new signs, Calvert was thrilled. “I remember it was a beautiful autumnal day,” she says, “with an intense blue sky.
“There was no traffic, just me and Jock. The banks of the motorway were brown so it looked like an alien landscape. There were some signs, and the scale of them with the white on blue – well, we were on quite a high.”
The pair went on to design signs for everything from the NHS to British Rail (“Maybe if Corbyn nationalises the railways, he would bring them back?” she says, hopefully). But their services were not retained by the Ministry of Transport, which is why the continuing modifications to the road signs are a thorn in Calvert’s meticulous side.
“Jock told me that signs would be hanging round my neck for the rest of my life – and he was right!”
First Appeared on The Guardian.