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The Great British Wayfinding System

Our British road sign system is 50 years old.  It still exists in its original form, it’s something I use on a daily basis and I always believe what it tells me!  Throughout the last year I’ve read various articles celebrating its existence and when mulling it all over I keep asking myself why does it fascinate me so much?

Well, firstly I think its because its the ultimate sign system.  Designed by Jock Kinear (1917 – 1994) and Margaret Calvert (b.1936), it conveys only relevant information which is viewed in a snap shot of time to enable quick decision making.  A minimal use of words using its own typeface, with rules for spacing and layout and the use of upper and lowercase letters to allow very quick word recognition.  Shapes and colour help to define categories of information and it comes complete with its own set of specially designed pictograms.

Kinear and Calvert were commissioned to design a sign system for Britian’s new motorway network in 1957, following the success of the scheme they developed for Gatwick Airport.  Kinear was a part-time lecturer at the Chelsea School of Art and Margaret Calvert his student.  They produced full size prototypes which were hand drawn with colour applied in gouche.  They tested and refined their designs in an underground car park in central London and at Hyde Park. They drove past them at 60mph in the most difficult conditions they could imagine, at night time and when it was raining.  Prototypes were installed and approved on the first phase of the new motorway route, the Preston by-pass (now part of the M6).  In 1963 Kinneir and Calvert were commissioned tore-design all other types of British road signs.

I love Margaret Calvert’s stories behind many of the pictograms she designed.  The school crossing which is based on her own childhood silhouette and intentionally progressive with the girl taking the lead.  The farm animal crossing point inspired by Patience, the cow at her relatives farm.  How whenever she looks at them now she wishes she had designed certain details differently.

Left: The designers Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert; top right: school crossing pictogram designed by Margaret and based on her own image as a child; bottom right: animal crossing point, again designed by Margaret and based on Patience, the cow at her relatives farm.

I can only imagine the competition and selection procedure should a project of this scale come to the marketplace today — EU tendering, numerous policy documents, an extensive list of requirements to be met. The simplicity of how Kinear and Calvert worked mirrors that of the system itself, all their focus going on it being as easy to understand as possible.

If I’m honest I’m a little envious, what an awesome project to get your teeth into !  I also feel very proud of it. It’s an iconic piece of British design that is still as relevant fifty years on.  In an age of fast moving technology our static system is far from vintage, it remains current and inspires our trust.

Image below: Original card mock-ups, dated between 1957 and 1967, hand painted using gouche and featured in the V&A Exhibition ‘British Design 1948-2012’ (up close you can detect the brush stokes).

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