Tag Archives: road signs

ConSIGNED to history

Sixty-years-ago on 5th December 1958 Britain’s first motorway was opened, at just over 8 miles long it was hardly going to compete with the German autobahns.

What did set the Preston by-pass (the first section on the M1) apart from its German counterparts was the signage which was designed by a young woman who possessed an amazing talent.

[M]ARGARET CALVERT who for decades has worked from her Islington townhouse was recruited by respected graphic designer Jock Kinneir upon graduating from the prestigious Chelsea School of Art, and together they set about the task of redesigning every road sign in Britain.

Some might remember the old confusing signs, many of which defied logic without conformity around the country. For reasons lost in the mists of time, a school was denoted by a flaming torch with the word school in very small capital letters. There was a sign warning of an impending corner as if the road bent at a 90º angle. Steep hill would keep you guessing as to whether to apply your brakes or start accelerating for an ascent. My favourite was the picture of a locomotive emitting smoke announcing an impending ‘crossing no gates’.

Added to that many way markers were signposts of the side of the road, only visible if you were on horseback.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day 2018, and this woman certainly deserves her accolades, collecting an OBE in 2016 she was recently nominated on Radio 4’s ‘Women of the Century’. Margaret Calvert simplified and unified road signage. A school, understandably showed two children walking, the girl said to be based on Calvert herself, and the cow depicted on farm animals crossing, was ‘Patience’, a cow from a relative’s farm.

The most noticeable contribution to help motorists find their way, and in so doing reducing accidents, have been Calvert’s direction signs. The distinctive white on sky blue on motorways was chosen as blue is a regressive colour, appearing black at night. The green and white signs inform the driver of trunk and local roads destinations.

But the beauty of Calvert’s signage is the typeface.

The preferred typeface was the German DIN (Deutsche Industrie Norm) the plainest of faces used on German car number plates. Designing a new face to be suitable named ‘Transport’ took as a starting point ‘Johnston’. Better known to Londoners as the iconic typeface used on the Underground, the curve on the lowercase l is very similar.

But it was the simple truth that was identified by Calvert: Word recognition was easier and faster when upper and lower case is used. We seldom read an entire word before comprehending it, and skimming is easier when the letters flow as they do in a book.

It was decided that the information imparted by the signs should be legible at 600 feet, and according to Simon Garfield in his excellent book Just my Type, prototypes would be taken to Hyde Park and leant again tree trunks. Then Kinneir and Calvert would walk away from them establishing relative reading distances for each typeface.

Later airmen sat on a platform at RAF Benson would have a car approach with the signs attached to the roof to identify the optimum size and shape letters that could be seen at a safe distance approaching at speed.

In July 1961 typographer Herbert Spencer took the 20-mile journey from Marble Arch to Heathrow Airport, taking pictures along the route (something unimaginable today), he published his finding in the periodical Typographic. He criticised the complete chaos and lack of conformity which he described as:

An extraordinary barrage of prose confronting drivers with as much text as a novel, the signs were prohibitory, mandatory, directional, informative or warning . . . a remarkable demonstration of literary and graphic inventiveness in a field where discipline and restraint would be more appropriate and less dangerous.

This would ultimately result in the clear signage we find in Britain today, their clarity has been adopted by countries as diverse as Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Iceland.

So the report published recently by the Department of Transport revealing the number of unnecessary road signs had doubled in 20 years to 4.3 million stating ‘. . . become so widespread that it is verging on national humiliation’.

The report’s authors have suggested that nine in ten signs should be removed. Margaret Calvert is always identifying the incorrect use of her designs, for instance, the spacing of characters (kerning), how dismayed must she feel when much of her ground-breaking work is now largely ignored by most local authorities?

The road sign at the junction of unclassified roads beside the church at Kirklinton by Anne Burgess (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Not a good sign

On a recent trip to Dorset I was obliged to the local authority for erecting a sign which informed me that the adjacent beach was subject to flooding, it’s always good to know what hazards lay ahead.

In London we have to blame King Henry I for the plethora of superfluous signage littering our streets imparting useless information. The good king deemed that a street could not be named as such unless it was paved and was wide enough for sixteen knights to ride abreast, while a lane had only to be the width of a beer barrel rolled by two men.

[T]his Royal Declaration must have started a growth industry in signage that has continued to this day and is now cluttering every road in London.

Beach warning

“Humps for 263 metres”, “New Road Layout Ahead”, “Signal Priorities Changed”. Am I really going to check the distance I’ve travelled to ensure that I won’t encounter another street calming obstacle, or that I’m so bright my memory can clearly remember the timings of every traffic signal in London?

We now employ somebody to type drivel into a gizmo that controls the M25 overhead gantries, they give us such gems as: “Road Ahead Clear” with the approximate time it will take you to reach a destination you have no intention of reaching.

Only last week while driving along the A12 the Olympic Delivery Authority shared – via a matrix board at the side of the road – the priceless information that trials were taking place within the Olympic Park.

Sign not in use

Frequently we’re told, just in case there was any doubt, that “Sign Under Test” rather implying that the upper sixth is taking its finals and we should be quiet lest we disturb the examination.

Each time I pass a sign announcing “Concrete Curing” I have visions of a group of men in high-viz jackets performing a laying on of hands to make the road better.

Once I naïvely thought that they had been put up for the benefit of the public, but of course they are for the benefit of the erectors of the signs. So obsessed are they in our liability culture they put up these signs so when asked they can reply “well, you were warned”.

The lost apostrophe


Harrods cast it aside in 1928; Selfridges followed 17 years later, but by then Gordon Selfridge was too busy having his way with twin showgirls The Dolly Sisters, than worry too much about what went over the door of his emporium. Currys have dispensed with its services and Starbucks, well they are American, never used one in the first place.

The apostrophe is going the same way as the double space after a full point, which was much loved by legal secretaries when using manual typewriters. If punctuation marks were endangered species, then the apostrophe would be an Amazonian rainforest frog, or a fish dependent on Great Barrier Coral Reef for its survival, we would have David Attenborough talking earnestly to camera in hushed tones about the need to keep it safe for future generations.

[D]espised by graphic designers who have been paid a fortune to ‘conceptualise’ and ‘brand’ a product, this little tick just gets in the way of their oh so cool layouts when they use their ubiquitous Comic Sans. And so corporate logos, billboards and most advertising omit this little symbol of possession or contraction.

This humble floating tadpole once looked to be consigned to the history books, but one valiant group have continued to keep it alive, albeit mistakenly. The greengrocer’s apple’s and pear’s were for many years a reassuring sight on our high street. This kind of sign-writer did not want to be faulted for omitting an apostrophe, so they were willing to run down their stick of chalk whenever an ‘s’ is found on the end of a word. And it is this reverence for punctuation, an anxiety, even in this misuse which has kept it alive.

The large supermarkets seem to have put pay to the humble high street greengrocer with his random tadpole placed before an ‘s’, and Sainsbury’s, not content with taking all the customers from high street grocers, have even taken on the mantle of using their own apostrophe, the only supermarket chain to retain its use.

If punctuation has a gender then the full point is undeniably male, while the rather contrary apostrophe can only be a lady. The little mark shows up when she feels like it and at other times will appear gracefully in the wrong place altogether.

The Apostrophe Protection Society, established to defend the punctuation mark’s place in the English language, is calling on users of the inappropriate apostrophe to mend their ways, well they would. The Society probably has among its members the Colonel Blimps of this world who reside in The Shires expressing righteous indignation whenever an offending tadpole is spotted.

Taxi'sWith the demise of the greengrocer one might have expected the apostrophe to disappear from our streets, only appearing in its correct place, firmly disciplined within articles in The Times. But no, a new group has taken up the baton, and if anything in London at least is more numerous than the late lamented greengrocer.

Road works. Hundreds of them, in every street there is an urgent need to dig a hole and leave it for posterity. And many holes need the familiar temporary yellow road sign that in many cases states the obvious.

The writer of the many road signs might not have apples and pears to sprinkle with fairly punctuation dust, but they have surfeit of roads, streets, parks, squares . . . and yes cab’s.

The Yellow Peril

Call me a naïve cabbie – something I am often accused – but I thought that the yellow police appeal signs were a sensible way of helping to solve crime and not merely a vulgar way to decorate and bring colour to London’s streets.

But it would appear the bright yellow police signs appealing for witnesses to serious offences will no longer decorate London’s streets.

[I]n an attempt to reduce ‘fear of crime’, the Metropolitan Police has effectively banned the use of the distinctive signs in all but exceptional circumstances. Presumably rape, murder, serious assault and armed robbery don’t constitute ‘exceptional circumstances’, because they were the only ones to gaily bring colour to the pavements of Brixton and Peckham.

Now officers can request their use in exceptional circumstances, but any such requests must be authorised by a ‘specialist crime directorate commander’. So I want you all to go down to your local nick and request to talk to your ‘specialist crime directorate commander’. He’s not to be confused with the odd job crime directorate commander who’s in charge minor crimes like dropping litter and allowing your dog to foul the pavement.

Someone in the higher echelons of the Met has become aware that in crime hotspots several yellow signs were being put up at once and presumably thought it showed the police in a bad light, as if crime was out of control.

As a London cabbie I know that the Met are doing their best at preventing ‘specialist crime’, I see dozens of police in yellow high visibility jackets on the streets every night stopping motorists. But doesn’t that make it look that motoring offences are out of control?

A Sign of the Times

Road Sign Montage England has roads that are built to be safe with good surfaces, consistent lane widths and good visibility at junctions, but that is where it ends. Forests of metal poles supposedly warning the driver of death-risk hazards have sprung up everywhere. Signs that direct you to the right destination are fine but in other respects our streetscape has become a disgusting expression of bureaucratic excess. Alan Duncan, MP for Rutland & Melton, published a Private Member’s Bill in December 2006 which he had hoped would give local authorities duties to reduce the visual impact of street signs and traffic calming measures and to publish policies on ensuring that highways developments are in keeping with local surroundings. In his forthcoming book he estimates that there are well over one million unnecessary road signs in Britain.

[H]e goes on to say: “These signs are the result of the worst examples of official inertia. Highways departments take the rules, and then over implement them. A guideline or regulation that says that a sign ‘might’ be required is usually put before a committee, which decides that it ‘must be used. ‘Oh dear,’ the committee members fret, ‘We might be sued if we don’t put the sign in.’ Even the tiniest bend in the road is assumed to need a warning sign to avoid the risk of the local council being taken to court if someone drives into a hedge.

So, here is the start of a list of signs that could safely be removed without any detrimental effect on the nation. On any main road, roundabouts are announced by large green directional signs that provide route information. You can tell the sign relates to a roundabout because, not surprisingly, the image looks like a roundabout. So why do we need, in front of it, a red-edged triangular sign warning drivers they are approaching a roundabout? Take all the triangular signs away.

When nearing a set of traffic lights, whose coloured bulbs glaringly inform you that there are traffic lights ahead, why must we have a series of red-edged triangular signs with a picture of traffic lights on them? The whole point about traffic lights is that they are designed to be seen.

Perhaps the greatest explosion of useless metalwork is caused by the number of blue roundels marking a cycle path. Keep the cycle paths but get rid of those ghastly signs. There is no need for them. If it is a shared pavement, just a stencil on the ground can mark it out.

Arguably the worst signs are those that say ‘New Road Layout Ahead’, or any such supposedly temporary red signs that, under current regulations, should remain in place for a maximum of three months, most stay for much longer, some even for years. Only a few councils have a proper system for removing them after their ‘temporary’ life span and such a widespread display of neglect and incompetence is a sad reflection on local authorities’ attention to the standards we all deserve.

Our roads into the capital are shaming. The Finchley and Holloway Roads are a national embarrassment. Such was the lunacy of Transport for London under Ken Livingstone that red route signs have been fastened to a post or lamppost every few yards for mile after mile on the roads into our capital city.

New signs come in; yet old ones remain. One layer of signs is planted in front of another, creating obscurity and confusion. A lack of initiative at Government level, over-design by highways engineers and contractors, and the fear of litigation all combine to make our streets ugly and confusing.

Get rid of this street clutter. Uproot it all now.”

Thanks to Alan Duncan MP for permission to reproduce this article.

Photo: http://www.freefoto.com