The (Road) Signs of Typography

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From the moment we learn to read, typography has a significant impact on our lives. Without intending to, we absorb thousands of words a day, sometimes even beginning before we get out of bed. Posters dominate the walls of our towns, shops have unique lettering adorning their fronts, and even clothes often come decorated with typographic slogans.

Typography for many people evokes images of decorative lettering, expressive catchphrases, logos and artistic alphabets – such designs that have obviously been thought out and painstakingly developed. What tends to be forgotten is that every written word is a form of typography. Typefaces, including what you are reading now, have been designed; yet, apart from designers, fonts and such like are often dismissed or taken for granted.

One particular typographic design that we see everyday is displayed on road signs throughout the country. How many people look at a sign on the side of a busy motorway and admire the typeface, the layout, kerning, leading etc? No one does. We think, “Thank goodness that sign was there otherwise I would have missed my turning,” or “I’m glad that sign was there, otherwise this roundabout would be very confusing.”

So, who is the genius behind the helpful and effective road signs around Britain? In fact, it was a project by two designers executed at the turn of the 1960s. Jock Kinneir (1917-1994) and Margaret Calvert (1936) are the people who took on the ambitious project to create an easily deciphered signage system that, not only modernised British roads, influenced the rest of the world.

Since tomorrow, 11th February 2017, would have been Kinneir’s 100th birthday, I thought it worth learning about the designer(s) of a system that we now take for granted. Using carefully placed letters, numbers, symbols and colours, Kinneir and his assistant took on the most ambitious information design project to date, and made our roads, and the ever increasing motorways, a much safer thoroughfare to navigate.

When Jock Kinneir took on this project in 1957, he was already a proficient and admired graphic designer. Born in Hampshire, he developed the taste for art and design, resulting in enrolling onto an engraving course at the Chelsea School of Art. Due to the war, his career did not take off straightaway, however he eventually gained a position in the Central Office of Information as an exhibition designer. By 1956, Kinneir had opened his own studio and was teaching at the same school he attended on a part time basis.

Kinneir’s first major project was developing the signage system at Gatwick Airport, which was only just opening for public use. It is at this stage that Kinneir began his partnership with Margaret Calvert. Studying for a National Diploma in Design, Kinnier recognised her illustration skills and employed her to help him produce artworks and drawings for this notable project.

It was through the results of the Gatwick project that Kinneir and Calvert landed themselves with the road sign commission. At this period of time, motorways were only just being introduced to the UK, meaning that the existing signs were virtually illegible and un-thought-out having been erected many years after the roads were originally paved. Kinneir and Calvert’s job was to work alongside the development of the new roads, developing a coherent system that would be easy to read and understand when driving at high speeds.

It was agreed that a combination of upper and lower case was more legible than the standard block capitals that previous sign-makers had utilised. This meant that an appropriate typeface had to be designed or procured. By adapting the preexisting typeface Akzidenz-Grotesk, a sans serif font originally released in Germany, the pair generated a softer, friendlier version, now known as Transport. The signs themselves sported a blue background with white type, which was easy for drivers to spot against the backdrop of the British countryside as well as the stretch of tarmac ahead of them – both during the daytime and at night.

The motorway signage system was such a success that Kinneir and Calvert were asked to design the other, now familiar, signs on the rest of Britain’s roads. These include the simple triangle signs dotted about our roads, as well as the large green boards on the sides of primary roads, and the white versions on the others.

Calvert was responsible for the pictograms that many of our signs display. It was felt that, on occasion, it was easier to show a command using a symbol, rather than a lengthy instruction that drivers would not have time to read. Now, whenever a driver spots a silhouette of a boy holding hands with a little girl, they know to be extra vigilant of children running around in the area.

Kinneir and Calvert later went on to work with British Rail, hospitals and the army, designing signage systems that were so successful that they are still in place today. Imagine the perplexity of navigating around the country without any clear guidance!

John Kinneir died in 1994, but his legacy remains. Of course, his (and Calvert’s) design has altered slightly, the more developed towns, roads and cities become – unfortunately making some areas rather confusing – however, Kinneir is mostly forgotten, as the public take road signs for granted.

“It is sad but true to say that most of us take our surroundings for granted. Direction signs and street names, for instance, are as vital as a drop of oil in an engine, without which the moving parts would seize up; one can picture the effect of the removal of this category of information on drivers in a busy city or on pedestrians trying to find their way in a large building complex. It is a need which has bred a sub-division of graphic design with more influence on the appearance of our surroundings than any other.” – Kinneir, 1965

Next time you are on the streets, whether driving or walking, take a look at the signs you pass. Appreciate their simple design, the use of colour, the clarity of the typeface. These signs did not just appear there, they have been carefully thought out for your benefit. Try not to take them for granted, and make an effort to remember both Kinneir and Calvert’s names – you never know, they may come up in a pub quiz one day!

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Text Art

Since the invention of the computer, typography has gradually entered the creative world as an art form, rather than a procedure involved in printing. Contemporary graphic designers use typography to express a message without solely relying on the actual words used. Certain typefaces can depict anger, whereas others are calmer, old fashioned, innocent and so forth. On the other hand, some artists use typography in a completely different way.

When drawing a portrait, for example, the artist has a wide choice of media: pencil, ink, watercolour, acrylic etc; but how they use this equipment is entirely up to them. Throughout history, artistic style has changed rapidly as the result of numerous art movements. In the present day, it is hard to say exactly what the current style is since artists tend to appropriate ideas from bygone eras. One thing that is unique to contemporary art, however, is text art – creating images using words or letters.

With a computer, providing it has the relevant software, it is easy to place typography in certain positions, change sizes, alter colours, switch from bold to italic etc. By trial and error (or a well written tutorial) it is possible to produce a work of art purely made up of typefaces.

On a recent trip to Ripley’s Believe It or Not, I got the opportunity to view some rather interesting art works. Two of these were forms of text art, yet instead of a computer, the entire thing had been created by hand. Knowing how easy it is to rectify inevitable mistakes on a digital version, I was amazed at the precision and accuracy the artists had achieved, particularly as there is no “undo” button in real life.

For something that many people achieve digitally, it must have taken ages to carefully plan the portraits before putting pen to paper. Not only the position and size of the text, but the pen thickness needs to be carefully thought about in order to create the portrait. Above are the two examples exhibited at Ripley’s. On the left is a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, which not only is created using calligraphy, has been executed in one continuous line! The text is Lincoln’s 1862 Emancipation Proclamation. Similarly, the portrait of Obama has also been made up with the words of a speech, in this instance, the Inaugural speech he made on 20th January 2009.

The artist who created the Barack Obama text art, Daniel Duffy, has produced many similar portraits of well-known people. Copies of Duffy’s art work have been sold to numerous fans, mostly in Philadelphia. His outcomes are much more impressive than a digitally produced version due to the evidence of the time and hard work needed to complete them.

Below are a few more examples of Daniel Duffy’s text art:

Inspiration

Whenever faced with a new design brief, it is always useful to research what has been done before. This helps you to discover what works and what does not work. When stuck for ideas, looking at existing artwork can help to boost your imagination.

Here are some of the books I own that I recommend looking through for design inspiration:

13325960Typography Sketchbooks by Steven Heller and Lita Talarico

This book contains examples of sketchbooks kept by over 100 typographers. Although there are not many final outcomes featured, the selection shows the thought processes behind each typographical composition. Sketchbooks need not be neat and tidy, and there is no right or wrong way to display your thoughts. Typography Sketchbooks reveals what works best for each individual and may inspire you to try and document your work in an alternative way.

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Graphic: Inside the Sketchbooks of the World’s Great Graphic Designers by Steven Heller and Lita Talarico

Similarly to Heller’s Typographic Sketchbooks, this book also shows the sketchbooks of 100 of the worlds most influential designers, including Art Spiegelman, Milton Glaser and Sara Fanelli. Hence the title, Graphic, the subject matter of these sketchbooks cover a broader insight to the mind of a designer, introducing illustration and layout as well as typography.

 

 

9837813Drawn In: A Peek into the Inspiring Sketchbooks of 44 Fine Artists, Illustrators, Graphic Designers, and Cartoonists by Julia Rothman

Drawn In is a similar book to the two above except it includes a wider variety of disciplines. A landscape painter’s sketchbook is going to be very different from a cartoonist or graphic designer’s sketchbook. It also includes interviews with each artist and their opinions on keeping sketchbooks.

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The Picture Book: Contemporary Illustration by Angus Hyland

I highly recommend this book to illustrators looking for inspiration; especially those who are still developing their own style. The Picture Book contains some well known artists as well as promising newbies. Some of the work is very beautiful and uses a range of mediums you may have not even thought of using.

 

 

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Illustration Now! Vol.4 by Julius Wiedermann

150 illustrators working in 2011 are shown in this book. There are other volumes available from different years, but this is the volume I personally own. Some of the work in here inspired me whilst I was working toward my graphic design degree, especially as I was leaning more towards illustration than any other style. Illustration Now! also contains information about each individual’s career path, exhibitions and clients they have worked for.

 

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@Supermarkets: Package Designs by Kaoru Takahashi

I came across this book at a Christmas bazaar back in 2010. It is really interesting to look at the packaging styles and methods that some of the most well known companies use. It is also fascinating to see how competing  brands package their goods to try and sell their products.

 

 

 

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Handmade Graphics: Tools and Techniques Beyond the Mouse by Anna Wray

While studying graphic design, I became more interested in designing by hand rather than on a computer. Handmade Graphics is a very useful book that shows you how you can produce designs without digital input. There are also a few tutorials you can follow for each set of examples showcased.

 

 

 

 

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Fingerprint: The Art of Using Handmade Elements in Graphic Design and Fingerprint No.2: The Evolution of Handmade Elements in Graphic Design by Chen Design Associates

These two volumes feature hundreds of examples of design outcomes produced by hand. All of these have been used successfully in the real world. It is amazing the lengths that some designers go to achieve by hand what a computer could achieve (although less authentically) in a few minutes. There are also a handful of essays written by leading designers about the benefits and their experience of producing handmade designs.

88466511039320210247456 Graphis Annuals 

Every year Graphis publishes annuals for a variety of disciplines . Artists and designers submit their work and the winners get featured in the relevant annual. I own three annuals: Design 2010, Posters 2010 and Posters 2011. I have turned to these books quite often when lacking inspiration as they contain so many original ideas.

I hope you will find these books as useful as I have found them. Do you have any recommendations of books to turn to when in need of inspiration?