Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the British road signage system. Unless you work in signage, visual communication or design – and/or happen to be a British road sign aficionado – you can be forgiven if this news passed you by.
Such signage is, while crucial, so embedded in our everyday existence that many of us don’t give it a second thought after it’s performed its functional role. And why should we? Since its introduction in the mid-60s, the signage system has been an unmitigated success for motorists across the country.
However, to not give it another thought would mean missing an opportunity to appreciate one of the most iconic road signage systems in the world. You only need a quick look at the story behind the signage to begin to understand what makes the British road sign such a fine example of wayfinding and a shining jewel in Blighty’s crown.
In 1963, the British government set-up the ‘Worboys Committee’ to address the incumbent system which had been on the receiving end of a public tongue lashing by renowned graphic designer Herbert Spencer, who considered it chaotic, confusing and unsightly. The need to improve the signage was made even more pressing by the fact that car ownership was on the rise.
Step forward graphic designers, Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert. The pair developed a standardised system which adopted the European approach of triangular shapes for warnings, circles for commands and rectangles for information, two new typefaces (‘Transport’ and ‘Motorway’) and that unmistakable red border (Red Pantone 186 for you colour fiends).
The end result was clean, clear, easily understood yet subtle – the perfect mix for road signage. And the rest, as they say, is history. Whether it’s notifying drivers of a speed limit, an animal crossing or that there’s the possibility a tractor is going to be slowing you down for 30 miles, the British road sign – thanks to a clever and distinctive uniform design – is as ingrained in British culture as drinking countless cups of tea, the monarchy, lamenting the weather and the country’s underperforming sports teams.