It’s hard to define exactly what makes design ‘good’. We can however observe when design endures. In the graphic design world, think of I ♥ NY, IBM and V&A’s logo. What is certain is that one of the most influential designs of modern times has been the work of Margaret Calvert. As you may know, she is the subject of a new exhibition at the Design Museum. She was central in creating Britain’s Road-sign system, Gatwick Airport and British Rail’s typeface.
Along with the Tube Map, it’s the road sign system that still has one of the largest impacts of any piece of graphic design in modern times. Created over 50 years ago it has been used literally a trillion times, has set an international standard, and is still going strong today. It’s a design icon.
Some accolade for something that many don’t even realise was designed purposefully that way. Margaret Calvert and (as she points out) the team on the project, realised from the outset that road signs are for road users. They had a job to do, to communicate their message without confusion or complication, in all the right places. Working with Governments, committees and multiple interested parties is hard work. Achieving consensus on design is therefore an enormous challenge. Doing this as a young, female designer in the 60’s is pretty unique. It’s no wonder that Margaret’s clean and modern designs, many coming from her own hand, were widely accepted. They have created a coherent system that withstands scrutiny.
What is special about the road sign system? It has two enormous facets. Firstly, the designs are simple and intuitive. Arrows to the right are on the right, type size depends on the speed of the road, icons are hard to misinterpret, sign types are easy to learn. Good typography works best when it’s not noticed. When the meaning and essence of the message is conveyed without distraction. Calvert’s designs work in this same way and it is no surprise she went on to design typefaces. What is exceptional is that her designs are at the same time supremely functional and yet balanced, coherent and beautifully crafted.
Secondly, they form a system. They were initially published in 1964 with guidance of where to place the signs, they were arranged progressively along a journey,
according to speed. Destinations have hierarchies. When entering the M1 in London the sign simply says THE NORTH. When you are near the end of the M1 there are signs for Wakefield, Sheffield and Leeds. This nuance can be easily overlooked. But as an experienced designer of wayfinding systems, the simplicity and consistency of its implementation over 50 years is just outstanding. They now live in the UK Department for Transport’s latest version of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions.
Her work on the Road Signs system was a major influence on the design of a number of more recent wayfinding systems. Most influential of these is London’s walking system, Legible London. This couldn’t have been tackled without Kinnear and Calvert’s work in the 60’s. They were the pioneers of the idea that the solution comes from the individual’s perspective. But also that designers are capable of imagining and creating clear unified systems. Systems that consider legibility, clarity, function and some degree of beauty. That can be agreed upon by a multitude of opposing factions. And that the system can be ‘systemised’ - and therefore long-lasting. These are all themes that are at the heart of Legible London today.
I think most importantly her work shows that good design can be achieved with and for large bureaucratic governmental bodies. And if there is one message in her work: Good design is design that endures.