Laura Gascoigne

Meet the woman who designed Britain’s revolutionary road signs

Laura Gascoigne interviews Margaret Calvert, who created the visual backdrop to modern life

Meet the woman who designed Britain's revolutionary road signs
Calvert’s cattle-in-the-road sign — hand-drawn from scratch — recalls a cow called Patience on a relative’s farm in Warwickshire. Credit: R Heyes Design/Alamy Stock Photo
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‘Design. Humanity’s best friend,’ proclaims a row of posters outside the Design Museum. ‘It’s the alarm that woke you up… The card you tapped on the bus… And the words you’re reading right now. So embedded in our lives we almost forget it’s there.’

It is one of the ironies of good design that the better it is, the less we notice it. This is especially true when we really need it: when lost in an airport five minutes before the gate closes or battling helplessly down the wrong road. In these instances, the woman we invariably have to thank for helping us to find our bearings is currently the subject of an overdue tribute at the Design Museum.

Margaret Calvert: Woman at Work celebrates one half of the pioneering graphic design partnership that dragged British signposting into the modern era. Along with Jock Kinneir, Calvert designed the Transport typeface adorning 270,000 miles of British roads, the Rail Alphabet flagging 2,500 British train stations and the Calvert typeface gracing the website. To claim, as the museum does, that she ‘created the visual backdrop to modern life in Britain’ is no exaggeration: her fingerprints are all over it.

It was while studying illustration and printmaking at Chelsea in the 1950s that the South African-born Calvert impressed her tutor Kinneir as ‘the student who applied herself most rigorously to what she was doing. She kept her head down and worked like a maniac.’ So when in 1957 Kinneir won the commission to design the signage for the new Gatwick airport, he thought: ‘That’s the person I want.’ Success at Gatwick led to a commission from Sir Colin Anderson, chairman of the P&O Orient line, to design colour-coded labels to stop illiterate porters losing people’s luggage, and when Anderson was appointed head of the government committee in charge of signage for a new motorway system, Kinneir got the gig.

In place of the old jumble of illegible black-on-white signs in serifed fonts that had evolved from stone-carving and were more appropriate to a cemetery than a high-speed road, Kinneir and Calvert developed a simple sans-serif alphabet combining upper and lower case letters in reflective white on blue. When expanded to cover the whole road network, their new signage system would include triangular traffic signs with continental-style pictograms — Britain was applying for entry to the European Community. After Kinneir went down with flu, the twentysomething Calvert found herself having to defend her now iconic ‘Men at Work’ sign in front of a 12-strong government committee of men in suits. Armoured in a suit of her own from Woollands, she toughed it out.

The committees worked with the Road Research Laboratory, which ran legibility tests at Benson airfield in Oxfordshire: a comical photo shows a 1950s saloon car with a sign reading ‘Oldham Smethwick’ mounted on top being driven towards a stand full of observers. Traditionalist opposition to Kinneir and Calvert’s modern lettering led by the stonecutter and typographer David Kindersley, a disciple of Eric Gill, was quashed when Kindersley’s old-fashioned alternative, all capitals and serifs, emerged as less legible. That didn’t stop the angry letters to the Times. Fortunately Prince Charles was still in short trousers, so no black-spider memos landed on the chairman’s desk. Anderson stood his ground, warning his committee: ‘Don’t even think of coming up with a new letter form,’ and eventually the fuss died down. ‘Once you do it, it’s all acceptable,’ says Calvert.

I’m normally nervous of interviewing designers, expecting them to be all spit and polish, so I was relieved on visiting Calvert’s Islington studio to find her mantelpiece cluttered with dusty sea-urchin shells, tin model cars and wooden acrobat toys. True, her workspace is neatly ordered, with a tidy desk and examples of recent projects lining the walls: a zingy turquoise and tangerine print reading ‘HE£P’ — her contribution to Jealous Gallery’s charitable Help Portfolio — and the ‘Woman at Work’ print that gives the exhibition its title. With time to play, she has returned to printmaking in between continuing graphic design commissions. At 84 she has just collaborated with former pupil Henrik Kubel on an updated Rail Alphabet 2 for Network Rail. ‘Jock said the signs would be around my neck for life; it all finished in 1965 and I keep getting revisited,’ she grumbles. ‘I want to get on with new things, because I always think the best is yet to come.’

When I try to revisit, she goes off at more tangents than the Hanger Lane gyratory, though she does let me in on an amusing story about missing the turn-off for the official launch of the opening stretch of the M1. Kinneir had taken up driving halfway through the project — ‘It’s best to approach things as an amateur,’ thinks Calvert — and was the owner of a new Fiat 600. ‘We’d been told where to stop, a little siding, but it was a lovely sunny day and we were thinking how surreal the vast blue signs looked against the brown banks and we forgot. We came to the end and had to drive into a ploughed field.’

If Calvert hadn’t appeared in an episode of Top Gear, I would have had her down for a non-driver. My question about this sends her off on another diversion, this time about the cars she’s owned and pranged (through no fault of her own). The first was a red second-hand Mini: ‘I chose red because people would notice me and if I was doing something wrong they wouldn’t crash into me.’ The second, a Mini Cooper, was crashed into late one night on Western Avenue by a driver who crossed the central reservation, causing her to swerve and roll over three times. ‘Then I saw the Porsche in Motortune in the Brompton Road and I thought: “That’s lovely, so beautiful.” I bought it because it only cost £1,000 second-hand.’ It also had a flat place at the back for her West Highland terrier Robin. Driving the Porsche — a 1964 356C — back in the early hours from a party in St Albans she slowed to read the sign at a roundabout. ‘There was so much on it that I stopped for a second to look and bang, a van went into the back of me.’ The OBE she received in 2016 was for services to typography and road safety; as her accident proved, the two are intimately connected.

Today the Transport typeface remains substantially unchanged, though there has been tinkering around the edges. ‘The minute you get a new man at the top things change. Another designer comes in; they make little changes, pushing the limits to get small differences and individuality. That would bore me stiff.’ Calvert’s alphabets are all hand-drawn from scratch. ‘I relate it to life drawing,’ she explains. ‘The figure is essentially a skeleton with flesh around it; an alphabet is a skeleton fleshed out. That’s where it gets its individuality. It’s very much a physical thing. Head, eye, hand — it’s that input that gives it its personality.’ The personality of her pictograms is more personal. Her farm animals sign recalls a cow called Patience on a relative’s farm in Warwickshire, and the little girl leading the boy on her ‘Beware Children’ sign is a self-portrait. It replaced a sign showing a boy leading a girl, but the reversal was not politically motivated. ‘I’m not a marching feminist at all,’ she says, ‘I just go with the flow.’

Calvert was always a woman in a man’s world. At the Royal College, where she taught for nearly 40 years, she was one of only a couple of female tutors, but she left her mark on a generation of graphic designers and on the building itself in the giant stainless-steel letters spelling ‘Royal College of Art’ in Calvert type over the entrance.

Margaret Calvert: Woman at Work is at the Design Museum, until 10 January 2021.