Tuesday December 20, 2016
Written by Andy Roberts
One of the most intriguing aspects of pictures of motoring of the past, aside from the telegraph wires and transport cafes that made the establishment in Hell Drivers look like The Ritz, are road signs.
These were the days when the approach to a school was signified by an illustration representing the torch of knowledge and motorists at a junction were ordered to “Yield” to a major road. Even on a short journey, drivers might face any member of orders and warnings variously issues by local authorities, Whitehall, the AA and the RAC.
Clearly, this approach would not work on the new motorways and so in 1957 the government established an advisory committee who approached the renowned graphic designer Richard “Jock” Kinneir and his assistant (and future professional partner) Margaret Calvert. In the words of the latter they ‘thought of everything from the standpoint of ‘what if I am at the wheel, doing speeds of over 70mph?’ The colour was to be sky blue as this provided a strong contrast with the green embankments, and black was deemed as being ‘too negative. The lettering was also chosen with considerable care; destinations were written in a mixture of upper and lower case, as this was easier for a motorist to read at 600 feet, and the type form was a Kinneir/Calvert creation known as ‘Transport’.
Trials were carried out in a Knightsbridge underground car park and in Hyde Park, where Calvert and Kinneir would prop their work against trees and slowly walk towards them – much to the amazement of various Londoners. Further evaluations involved fast driving along a runway at Hendon and riding in a police car along the motorway to evaluate if the wording could be deciphered at speed. When the Preston By-Pass opened in 1958 some commentators grumbled that the new signs were vulgar, too big, and generally a further indication that the country was heading for the dogs. One especially memorable complaint was they gave ‘an impression of having been designed for lunatic drivers’.
However, five years later, the Ministry of Transport established the Worboys Committee to overhaul the country’s road signs and Kinneir and Calvert would apply the example of their work. One major difference was that this new signage would employ continental style pictograms instead of words. A few of these had real templates’ for instance, the cow in the warning for farm animals on the road was based on one from a farm owned by Margaret Calvert’s family. The size and forms of lettering were also evaluated by having volunteers sit on a tiered platform in the middle of an airfield and asking them to read the different combinations that were attached to the roof of a Vauxhall Velox.
The new signs first appeared on British roads in ‘65 and the government’s plan was for signage to be replaced on all major roads within three years costing £22 million. One of Kinneir and Calvert’s aims was for their work to be appropriate for the age of mass motoring and to be more in-keeping with post-war Britain than advice on how not be ‘rude on the road’. In a recent interview, Calvert noted how some of the previous traffic warnings looked ‘archaic – almost out of an Enid Blyton book’ - and one of the main legacies of their work is that they changed the country’s landscape. Indeed, in ‘58 the impact of the blue motorway signs was so controversial that one edition of the BBC’s current affairs programme Tonight devoted much of its running time to the issue. A primetime television show debating traffic sign aesthetics – truly the past is another country…