Expert Blog

Pointing the way: let’s celebrate the design of British road signs

Sometimes it is the most ubiquitous things that pass us by. The apparently banal fabric of our daily commute, the design of the little functional aids that help us as we move from place to place, these are things we take for granted. Who stops to look at the signs?

My own road sign appreciation epiphany came in my late teens when I was given the task of writing the ‘farewell’ portrait of Mrs Arbuthnot, my retiring art teacher, for the school magazine. I was required to interview this stern old lady who ruled the art department with a rod of charcoal and an obsession with the study of decomposing vegetables, and who, when not in the studio, was usually sat in her car, chain-smoking. She was a figure of some fascination for all pupils, with many rumours indicating a mysterious and glamorous past.

I was hopeful of some good stories when I went to interview Mrs Arbuthnot for the magazine, but the best of them turned out to be the one that opened my dozy eyes to a new world of design and functionality. It was revealed that Mrs Arbuthnot had, while a student at Chelsea School of Art, been involved in the design of our road signs, those seen-but-unseen essentials of British road transport.

I confess I was a little bit astonished to think that anyone had designed the road signs at all, though a moment’s thought would have made it obvious that the signs were not only all part of a coherent system but a genuinely brilliant example of functional graphic design.

Quite how involved Mrs Arbuthnot actually was I will never know, but Jock Kinneir, the co-designer of the sign project, taught at Chelsea and, as there was a great deal of experimentation and testing of the designs, it seems reasonable that his students might have taken part. He and Margaret Calvert were the masters, however. For the signage system they created between 1957 and 1967, they should be ranked with the greatest of British designers.

The brilliance of the British system of road signs lies in its clarity. The font design, known as ‘Transport’, was crafted to be read easily at any distance. The decision to employ lowercase lettering with capitals was a break from tradition but one that made deciphering words far easier. Driving in France recently, I was struck by how much harder it is to read names written all in capitals as there can be no distinctive word ‘shape’ to help you.

Another useful deviation from the French system is the consolidation of all road direction information into one sign, so road numbers and destinations are read together. This allows for a swifter understanding than the French system which often sees the road number displayed on a separate little sign some way above the place name. Of course, each country’s system becomes familiar and workable, but the British one is wonderful because of its instant and unequivocal clarity.

The colour coding system of signs is equally clear and helpful: white lettering on a blue background for motorways; white on green, with road numbers in yellow, for primary roads; and black on white for secondary roads. Add to this the brown signs for tourist or cultural destinations, and black signs for the benefit of goods vehicles, and you have a neat system that communicates directly with its users. Most motorists don’t ever notice the black signs, filtering them out as irrelevant to them, while truck drivers are attuned to them.

As well as the route signs, Calvert and Kinneir produced the system of pictograms indicating hazards and warnings, greatly influenced by Otto Neurath’s Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics or ‘Isotype’. The school children crossing; the man at work; the cow to warn us of an approaching farmstead – all these were drawn by Calvert and based on real life. (The cow was called Patience and she lived in on a relative’s farm Warwickshire.) A graceful, gentle detail is the rounded corners which are to be found across the whole family of signs and which relate to the shape of the Transport font.

One of the strongest testaments to the success of these designs is that they remain both functional and aesthetically appropriate. The signs appear ageless and the continued modernity and functionality of the Transport typeface is confirmed by the adoption of a barely altered version of it as the sole font for the government’s revamped website. The new, web-friendly, version was, pleasingly, developed by Margaret Calvert herself in conjunction with Henrik Kubel of A2/SW/HK.

The web application of the design is something that never could have been imagined by Mrs Arbuthnot back in her Chelsea studios fifty years ago but she would have been delighted by the enduring success of this most faultless design. Design enthusiasts have revelled in Kinneir and Calvert’s achievements for many years; motorists should do the same.


Guest Blogger: Claudia Massie. Artist

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