IIt is almost impossible to escape Margaret Calvert. It stands at every motorway junction, shines in bold, light letters and on every street corner and warns of possible dangers. The 84-year-old designer, who is still working in her studio and jointly responsible for giving British streets their visual identity, is the subject of a retrospective at the Design Museum.
“I’m not quite as slim as I was then,” says the South African-born designer, who stands in front of one of her famous school intersection signs that are shown in the exhibition. “But the hairstyle stayed the same.” Tasked with updating the previous sign depicting a high school student in a cap walking a younger girl with a bag across the street, she decided to turn it over and the girl in charge to commission. She modeled the silhouette on a photo of herself as a child. Her tidy bob hasn’t changed much since then – nor does she have the ability to lead the way.
The exhibition, which is arranged around the atrium walls of the London Museum, coincides with the start of Calvert’s latest project, which reinterprets the identity of the British railways. Introduced this week, Rail Alphabet 2 takes the font she originally designed for British Rail in the 1960s with the late Jock Kinneir, and updates it for the digital age to make it lighter, crisper, and more legible.
“There is a jumble of different fonts on railroad signs that are difficult to read and confusing for passengers,” said Peter Hendy, chairman of Network Rail. “That’s why we wanted to work on a clean and uniform design to make journeys and stations better.” The drawings in the exhibition show how Calvert began, as always, by hand-drawing the letter shapes and gouache them before writing was digitized and developed in collaboration with a former student, Henrik Kubel. Calvert, who was originally trained as an illustrator, has always attached the utmost importance to the physical drawing of the letter shapes. “Though it was a lengthy process, it was my way of adding a personal touch,” she says, “and avoiding eccentric mannerisms that could easily date.”
Across the atrium, their original gouache paintings for the highway signs look as fresh as ever. They’re not much larger than A3 sheets and as precise as an inkjet printer popping out of the cabinet like bold pop art. Accompanying photos show what a mess the UK signage was before Calvert and Kinneir took their sharp-edged scalpel there. “A tangled jungle of words,” as typographer Herbert Spencer described the competing hand-to-hand combat of traffic signs in 1961, “an extraordinary flood of prose”. With the imminent arrival of the country’s early highways, something had to be done.
Readability at speed was the main goal. A wonderful archive photo shows flat-capped men from the Road Research Laboratory sitting in an airfield as a car approaches. There is a road sign for Oldham and Smethwick on the roof. The idea was to ensure that the overall form of the place name was legible from a distance and that the individual letters did not have to be identifiable. Calvert always compared it to a Rembrandt painting: “When you are close it doesn’t make sense, but everything comes together at the right reading distance.”
The response to this radically new sans serif world, which was heavily inspired by modern German graphic design, was not generally positive. The old guard was angry. Calligrapher and stonemason David Kindersley, who designed the MOT serif on the previous road signs, wrote letters to The Times complaining about these new “houses the size of houses” arguing that his capitalized font took up much less space . But Calvert and Kinneir won, and their work endures.
“It embodies the ultimate goal of typography: maximum clarity,” says writer and graphic designer Adrian Shaughnessy. “Its functionality is beyond question. Businesses spend all of their time and energy updating their brands, but road signs have never had to change over the years. It was very effective from the start. “
The exhibition shows much more than just the history of traffic signs. It starts with the duo’s work for the P&O ferry company, which makes a range of baggage tags that are designed in bright colors and shapes and can be read by people of different languages and literacy levels around the world. Their logo for Glasgow Airport was just as ingenious and combined directional arrows with the Scottish flag. There is also a fascinating section on her suggestion on the visual identity of the French New Town of St. Quentin-en-Yvelines in the 1970s. They developed a series of sculptural, three-dimensional letter shapes that could be read from multiple angles and a punchy serif font. But everything was rejected by the city as “too English”. Now known as Calvert, the typeface was instead adopted by Newcastle Metro, whose strong, square M on a yellow background stands out as a recognizable landmark across the city. The Tyne and Wear Metro is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and continues to use the Calvert font, as do bus and ferry networks in the northeast.
But perhaps the most revealing part of the show is the display in a corner that serves as evidence of Calvert’s teaching career. She taught at the Royal College of Art for almost 40 years, was the head of the graphics department from 1987 to 1991 and shaped an entire generation of successful graphic designers. Beautifully placed staff and student honors, presented as parting gifts in 2001, sum up the impact it had on the world beyond the highways. “Margaret Calvert: Frank, fearless, innocent, vague, funny, direct, timeless, eccentric, stubborn, popular with students,” says one.
It can also be quite violent. “Whatever you do,” advised a colleague when I came to the exhibition, “don’t joke that road construction sign that looks like a man wrestling with an umbrella.”
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