Title: Designing a system for Britains road signs
Pages: 69 - 71
Text: Designing a system for Britain's road signs
Graphic system for directional informatory road signs. Commissioned by the Ministry of Transport. Designer: Jock Kinneir.
The directional road signs for Britain's primary and non-primary roads have been evolved by a combination of research, design and committee work that has resulted in a single design solution to a vast and complex problem.
1 Aesthetic and amenity considerations were stressed throughout. The Worboys committee was particularly anxious to devise signs which were immediately recognisable without overwhelming their surroundings. In December 1961, Sir Walter Worboys (chairman of the ColD from 1953-60) was appointed by the Secretary of State for Scotland and by the Minister of Transport to form a committee "to review traffic signs on all-purpose roads, as distinct from motorways, including roads in urban areas, and to recommend what changes should be made". The Worboys committee - together with its immediate predecessor, the advisory committee set up by the Ministry of Transport under the chairmanship of Sir Colin Anderson to consider the sign system for the motorways - represented the first serious attempt to make a thorough investigation of the design problems involved in the development of a national system.
The departmental committees which had reported on road signs to the MoT in 1933 and 1944 had agreed with the Government in not adhering to the 1931 Geneva Convention Concerning the Unification of Road Signs. They did not employ professional designers, though the 1933 committee included two representatives of the British Institute of Industrial Art, and it was this committee which made radical advances in the techniques of direction signing.
Like the Anderson motorways committee, the Worboys committee differed from these earlier investigations in its examination of Continental practice, and its appointment of a professional designer, Jock Kinneir. Moreover, aesthetic and amenity considerations were stressed throughout the committee's activities - the committee in fact included four architects, one of whom was also an industrial designer.
The committee was supported by a working party chaired by T. G. Usborne, head of the MoT's traffic signs division, and included representatives from the Road Research Laboratory. The working party, using information gathered from reviews of sign systems at home and abroad, provided papers for consideration by the committee. Broadly speaking, the chain of responsibility was that the information prepared by the working party suggested certain principles affecting design. These included the use of lower case lettering, the abandonment of the panels which had been first recommended by the 1933 committee, the use of emphatic route symbols, the various sizes of lettering in relation to kinds of roads, the relative sizes of place names and route numbers, the use of larger signs of a distinctive colour for route numbers, and the adoption of white lettering on a background of the same green colour as was
A range of signs for primary and non-primary routes and for local use, incorporating advance directions signs,
direction signs and route confirmatory signs for cross roads, junctions, roundabouts and other sites.
2 A dark green background was chosen for the primary route signs with particular attention to its ability to harmonise effectively with the rural background.
3 Advance direction sign, showing as an overlay the grid which makes up Kinneir's system of 'minimum preferred dimensions'. The assembling structure is based on capital upright stroke widths.
already in use on the Stamford by-pass. These principles were considered and in the main adopted by the committee, which then instructed Kinneir to suggest appropriate lettering and rules for design which would be sufficiently explicit to enable them to be followed by all potential sign manufacturers.
Kinneir drew the alphabets, recommended colours and investigated such questions as the amount of space which should ideally separate elements on the signs. After general principles had been agreed, the working party tested over 60 experimental signs against all possible backgrounds and in varying lights, natural and artificial. Kinneir himself defines his role as having been to "deal with everything involved either in aesthetics or in the task of squeezing an extra ounce of comprehensibility out of the system".
The committee's most important decision was its recommendation that Britain's signs should follow broadly the system outlined in the Protocol proposed by the 1949 UN World Conference on Road and Motor Transport (and subsequently adopted by 30 countries); though it also agreed that individual Protocol signs should be redesigned where this seemed necessary.
Because of this, the ColD's panel of judges decided to restrict its award to the directional signs; for here the Protocol merely recommended that "signs be rectangular and that the message and background should contrast in brightness".
Within this group of signs, the core of Kinneir's success lies in the legibility of the two alphabets (Transport Medium for lettering on dark backgrounds, and Transport Heavy for lettering on light backgrounds), in the titling system he has devised to ensure correct inter-letter, inter-word and inter-line spacing, and in the layout of the signs (where Kinneir has evolved a system of 'minimum preferred dimensions' to allow each sign to be individually composed, working from the central spine radially outwards).
Moreover, while the signs are robust and workmanlike in appearance, the Worboys committee's concern for their impact on the environment has meant that they look apt and do not dominate either urban or rural backgrounds. The judges have, however, felt compelled to criticise the design of the mounting and illuminating engineering structures which are not the responsibility of either the MoT or Kinneir - as being both unnecessarily unrelated to the graphics of the signs and, too often, crude in themselves.
In fact, the question of the mounting of signs was dealt with by the Worboys committee, both at the time in a paper produced by the working party and subsequently in a further paper produced by a signs structure sub-committee comprising two out of the four Worboys architects. And the MoT has just produced the chapter on "Mounting of Signs" in its Traffic Signs Manual (which is being circulated piecemeal). It is confident that the advice contained in it will quickly lead to a marked improvement in the quality of the mountings and of such fittings as the lighting housing.
One member of the judging panel, Alan Irvine, feels that the signs should not be given an award on the grounds that "the formal typographical layouts and the design and arrangement of symbols often result in a low standard of legibility and seem in many cases more suited to the printed page than to the roadside", and that some of the modifications made to the Protocol designs seem to him to be confusing and unnecessary. The majority of the judges, however, felt that the outcome of this vast and complex public commission was highly successful, and that the proper use of a consultant designer was in a large measure responsible for this success.
The designer Jock Kinneir is head of the department of visual communication at the Royal College of Art. He is also the senior partner of Kinneir, Calvert and Associates, which has been consultant designer to the Ministry of Public Building and Works (for unit title signing and barrack direction signs for all armed forces home establishments), to British Rail (for signing), and currently to the British Airports Authority, to Glasgow Corporation (for the house style for Glasgow Airport), and to ICI (Plastics Division).
4 and 5 Examples of non-primary route signs and local direction signs are shown in 4. Both use Transport Heavy lettering on a white background, but non-primary route signs have black borders while local signs have blue borders. Primary route signs, 5, use Transport Medium lettering on a green background (the co/our is no 6-074 in the BS2660 range). A rectangular sign pointed at one end is used for direction signs that are placed at the actual junctions.