Margaret Calvert with her design for the Design Museum’s 30th anniversary last year © Felix Speller

If you were choosing a typeface for a new system of motorways, you might not alight on one called Akzidenz-Grotesk. But that is exactly where Jock Kinneir and his young partner in design, Margaret Calvert, landed as a starting point when they began developing the lettering which has become among the most recognisable and widely used in the world. 

Kinneir had been commissioned to design the signage for Britain’s motorways in the late 1950s. The familiar white-on-blue lettering and that gentle modernist letterform (inspired by the German Berthold Type Foundry’s Akzidenz-Grotesk of 1898) was one of the elements in a postwar design revolution. This included the modernist architecture of the state and local councils, consumer goods, cars and graphics in a country which had seemed broadly resistant to modernism as something suspiciously continental.

Kinneir was, for most of his career, given credit for much of this work but, since his death in 1994, Calvert has been able to reclaim her own contribution. A new show of her work opening at London’s Design Museum (Margaret Calvert: Woman at Work), demonstrates what an astonishingly long and influential career it has been, touching on almost all aspects of the visuals of British public life.

The signs indicating place names and routes and the complete redesign of what had been an ad hoc arrangement of local signs and symbols could be read as an exercise in national branding, nothing less than a reimagining of British identity. Alongside the lettering were the pictograms and symbols for road signs which have become so ubiquitous and deeply ingrained in the British national consciousness that we might now struggle to even see them.

The girl in Calvert’s ‘children crossing’ symbol was based on herself

Take, for example, the symbol for “children crossing”, a girl leading by the hand what appears to be her younger brother. You can tell it’s a girl because of the subtle flare of a skirt. And if you look a little closer you can tell that it’s Calvert herself by the implied bob, which she still sports at 84. The sign, Calvert relates, was based on her image of herself as a young girl. The hand-holding was nurturing, caring. This was the signage for an emerging welfare state, driven by technology (the car) but still humane, still caring for its children. 

Calvert has reclaimed credit for her part in creating the UK’s motorway signage

Born in South Africa in 1936, Calvert came to England as a child and had been studying at Chelsea College of Art, vacillating between focusing on illustration or art, with no training at all in typography, when she was picked by Kinneir. Aged only 21, she was co-opted into designing a series of luggage tags for the shipping company P&O, a fascinating exercise in lettering and colouring designed to be legible to often illiterate porters. From there she went on to design, with Kinneir, the signage for Gatwick airport in 1957. If, typographically, the signage looks a little clunky today, it is perhaps only because we have become used to the more refined, evolved version used on road signs. 

In the late 1950s Colin Anderson, who had commissioned the pair for their luggage labels when he was chairman of P&O Orient, became chairman of the committee to advise on motorway signage and approached them again. It was a serious project carried out in the spirit of modernist research. A photo in the exhibition shows a platform of observers taking notes on the legibility of a sign as it approaches them on the roof of a car.

Their approach was not universally accepted or beloved: rival designer and stone letter-carver David Kindersley (a one-time student of Eric Gill) submitted a rival design of capital letters. It was deemed to be slightly (3 per cent, in fact) more readable but, at least to me, appears more suited to the graveyard than the A-road. Kinneir and Calvert went, controversially, for a mix of capitals and lower case, not very modernist (the Swiss, for instance, favoured only lower case, British modernists all caps) and also with more old-fashioned flourishes such as an old-fashioned “a”. But it has lasted incredibly well.

The road signs — the children, the workman digging the road, the cow (based, apparently, on a creature she remembered from a neighbouring farm in her childhood) and a running stag (inspired by Eadweard Muybridge’s photos of animals in motion), all set in a red circle or triangle — are now a part of the UK’s national visual language, much loved and parodied. 

Observers assess the visibility of a road sign as it is driven towards them

Kinneir and Calvert were also responsible for the look of British Rail. Following nationalisation in 1948, Britain’s disparate train companies needed some kind of visual coherence and the designers responded, a little late, in the mid-1960s with one of the most complete and widely admired corporate rebranding exercises. In an intriguing repeat of history, the renationalisation of the network’s infrastructure manager, Network Rail, is being followed by a similar rebranding, building on the coherence and elegance of that 1960s design.

The exhibition doubles as the official launch of “Rail Alphabet 2”, a major work of graphic design to reimpose order on the now-fragmented landscape of signs and wayfinding. Designed in conjunction with type designer Henrik Kubel, the new system retains the modernist rigour of the original with a crisper, leaner letterform. It’s a delight to see Calvert’s exquisite hand-drawn letters beside the huge array of potential applications across the rail network. 

Calvert’s symbol for the Tyne and Wear Metro is among the exhibits at the Design Museum © Felix Speller

There was, of course, much more: such as the wonderful Tyne and Wear Metro (1980), with its vivid yellow and slab serif letterform (a big “M” on a pole, one of the Metro system’s original signs, features prominently here). It’s also a little odd to see the recent rebranding which uses Calvert’s letters but somehow contrives to make everything look more dated. And, perhaps undersung but hugely significant, the design of the UK government’s web portal which won widespread praise and awards for its clarity and usability. 

What is so fascinating here, in this small but visually striking show, is the way in which Calvert contributed and continues to contribute to graphic design as national identity. So much in graphics concentrates on the pop aspect, the branding and the magazine covers, the covers of books and records, the posters and flyers, it can seem like an arm of advertising, a language in the service of consumption. Yet this exhibition perfectly illustrates how a nation recovering from war, adjusting to a new reality and to a modernisation of everything from housing and railways to the construction of new types of infrastructure from motorways to airports, was effectively branded by a small outfit of designers working above a garage in Knightsbridge.

Their reach was immense and it allowed a nation to read itself anew. That reading is still being tweaked, edited and redesigned in a language that is rational, elegant and calming and defined in letters designed by Margaret Calvert.

To January 10, designmuseum.org

Letter in response to this article:

Calvert’s designs pointed the way for NHS brand / From Emeritus Professor Ceri Davies, Architecture Department, Cardiff University, Harrogate, North Yorkshire, UK

Get alerts on Design when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article