“Design without a function is art.”
That’s a quote from someone famous, someone so famous I can’t remember who it was, or if it was actually said at all, but that’s not the point. The point is that good design, really good design – excepional design – has a function and is pleasing to the eye at the same time. Some of my favourite pieces of truly great design follow this rule, the most obvious ones being the wonderful Harry Beck’s groundbreaking interpretations of the London Tube Map back in the 1930s. Here was an engineering draftsman who radicalised model transport maps for the future.
My second favourite is so much bigger. It’s huge, massive, even bigger than my mortgage and credit card bills combined: the motorway signage system. Designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert, the system was revolutionary. Kinneir, a former lecturer at the Chelsea School Art, had worked on similar signage projects before, most notably for Gatwick Airport and P&O Shipping Lines. Margaret Calvert was a former pupil of Kinneir’s and had previously worked with him on the Gatwick Airport project.
In 1957 a government commission was formed to design and implement signage for the new motorways that were slowly but surely carving their way through Great Britain, and it was Kinneir and Calvert that were handed the task. Just Jock and Margaret: two graphic designers, no project managers, no account handlers, no directors, just two designers on a project that would eventually be seen and used by every man and woman in the United Kingdom over the course of their lives, often without giving it two seconds’ thought. At the time British roads were littered with incoherent, haphazardly-placed and inconsistent road signage, each piece different to the others in style, content and typeface: from Glasgow to Edinburgh and Swindon to Slough, all different. More importantly this was dangerous for the motorist: attempting to read signs and gather information whilst driving at high speed really isn’t a good combination.
Jock and Margaret created a new typeface for the job – the aptly-named Transport (a refined, more rounded version of Aksidenz Grotesk if lettering is your ‘type’ of thing). This typeface, almost always in white, was combined with a series of flat colours and simple shapes to differentiate the various categories of information needed – places of interest, towns, cities, motorways, road names and numbers etc – and proved to be an almost immediate success. The first official test of their work came at the Preston bypass in 1958, and it passed. From here Kinneir and Calvert went on to design the entire road system singage project from the largest of motorway signs right down to the pictograms for non-motorway roads, including the famous ‘children crossing’ illustration of two children crossing the road – legend being that this was a self-portrait of Margaret and her brother crossing the road in their youth.
The success of this natonwide project led to further work for Kinneir Calvert Associates, most notably in the transport industry, for airports in Sydney, Melbourne and Bahrain, and our very own Tyne & Wear Metro System right here in the North East, as well as NHS hospitals across Great Britain and the British Army, alongside stints working in higher education at the Royal Collage of Art.
Jock Kinneir passed away in 1994 but his and Margaret’s work lives on on every road from John O’Groats to Land’s End and everywhere in between, in what is probably the most functionally and used piece of truly great design around.