The Ripple Effect: How Our Smallest Design Choices Can Make A Big Impact
The rules of typography and information design provide us with a framework with which to design. But within these contraints, can our design choices have wider implications?
The typometer is an object as fascinating as it is mundane. To the unacquainted eye, it is an inconsequential sheet of plastic, with edges bearing some resemblance to a ruler. The body contains an array of lines and digits and letters in a humanist typeface, which would hold no meaning at all if it wasn’t for the prefix ‘typo’.
To the typesetter, the typometer represents the physical embodiment of the basic principles of typesetting — a series of measurements from point size to leading, in use since the mid-15th century, the dawn of the letterpress era. These measurements still (rather opaquely) govern typesetting today, both in function and in name, despite having lost the beautiful visual representation they enjoyed in the days of metal type, when 1pt wasn’t quite a 72nd of an inch.
Before the precision of digital typesetting, the typometer was developed by printers to recognise and account for idiosyncrasies which arose when printing. It is now almost the antithesis of the black-box paradigm that typographic measurements have become in the digital age. One can place such a sheet of plastic over printed materials, and identify type size, line spacing, line thickness, and other measurements, otherwise lacking in obvious physical representation when type is used today.
When using type, particularly in the case of information design, typesetters are entrusted with using these measurements, and selecting appropriate typefaces, which maximize the legibility and readability of the text. It was thought by Beatrice Warde, publicity manager for the Monotype Corporation in the 1920s and 30s that “the best type existed merely to communicate an idea. It was not there to be noticed, much less admired.” A great deal has been done in the way of research to identify the ideal characteristics of legible and readable text.
In the 1970s, research from the Royal College of Art’s Readability of Print Research Unit, identified several of these characteristics, including that information could be more quickly read and understood, when displayed using a typeface with a greater distinction between individual letters, and with larger counters. More recent research conducted by Monotype and the MIT AgeLab, compared a humanist typeface (Frutiger) with a square grotesque typeface commonly used for meters in vehicle displays (Eurostile). The study found that men spent 10.6% less time reading the humanist typeface than the square grotesque, which represents approximately 50 feet in distance at US highway speed.
Perhaps these characteristics account for the widespread success of DIN 1451 in information design; a typeface created by engineers and defined by the Deutsches Institut für Normung (German Institute for Standardisation) in 1931. Still the official typeface for many European road signs, DIN and similar typefaces can be found in the gauges of many a meter, and was widely adopted for industrial use throughout the 20th century.
It was in fact so widely adopted, that when Sir Colin Anderson appointed Jock Kinneir (and by extension, Margaret Calvert) to design signage for the first British motorways in 1958, he wrote a letter saying “I am anxious you shouldn’t embark upon inventing an alphabet of a character quite ‘new’. We have, as a committee, got into the habit of accepting the general weight and appearance of the German alphabet as being the sort of thing we need! I think therefore something on those lines is what the Committee believes it wants…”.
In an essay written by Calvert for AGI: Graphic Design, she rather comically describes this as “a request we chose to ignore — believing that the German sans serif (designed by an engineer), although demonstrably effective, would not sit will in the English landscape.” What resulted was the development of a new typeface (later known as Transport), based on Akzidenz Grotesk. It features a softer, friendlier appearance than its German counterpart, and contains some uniquely British characteristics like a lowercase ‘l’ borrowed from the Johnston typeface of the London Underground.
Transport was developed with a number of considerations for readability and legibility, unique to the requirements of road signs, which need to be visible from large distances and at high speed. In order to offset the effect of “halation” under the full glare of headlights, the curved strokes of the letters a, c, e, f, g, j, s, t and y are obliquely cut. Whilst motorway signs feature a blue background (which appears black at night) and white lettering (which appears bolder when reflecting headlights), minor road signs with white backgrounds would distort the black letters when reflecting light, and so a heavier weighted typeface was created to offset this.
Kinneir and Calvert’s modern type design did not go unnoticed, by the more conservative members of the British typographic design community however, and in the letter columns of several respectable newspapers, a battle began to ensue, similar to the VHS vs Betamax “videotape format war” that would begin a decade or so later.
Another designer, David Kindersley, had been unofficially developing a different typeface for road signs, which Calvert describes as an “oddly weighted seriffed alphabet” in her essay. His design was exclusively uppercase, which he claimed would dramatically improve legibility. In order to settle the dispute, the Road Research Laboratory organised what now seems like a rather peculiar method of A/B testing.
The competing prototype signs were mounted on the roof of a car, and driven at high speed towards a group of volunteer airmen from Benton airport, who were seated in the middle of the airfield. Although Kindersley’s typeface was determined to be 3% more legible than Transport, this was considered statistically insignificant, particularly given the questionable conditions of the test. The decision was left to aesthetics, and in the words of one observer “Kindersley’s letters were just so ugly.”
Kinneir and Calvert’s signs were not just about the typeface however, and choosing this time to follow international standards, opted to use triangular signs for warning drivers, circles to issue commands, and rectangles to relay information, as per the 1949 Geneva Protocol.
In a remarkable feat of information design, carried out by designers as opposed to engineers, Britain’s chaotic mixture of various signs with different typefaces, colours and symbols — once lambasted in photographic essays from issues of Typographica — were replaced with a consistent set of signs with defined shapes, colours and stroke weights for different types of information and categories of road.
Most interestingly however, was Calvert’s use of pictograms similar to that of continental Europe. Many of Calvert’s designs were influenced by her own experiences — the cow depicted on the farm animals warning sign was based on “Patience” — a cow on one of her relative’s farms. The ‘children crossing’ sign which features a girl leading a younger boy across the road was based on an image of herself as a child. She described this sign as “quite archaic, almost like an illustration from Enid Blyton…I wanted to make it more inclusive because comprehensives were starting up.”
Calvert’s signs are now a well-established part of British culture. Many of her pictograms are iconic and unique to British road signs, and it’s interesting to consider how the design choices she made 51 years ago, which were based on her own culture, have unintentionally gone on to affect British popular culture.
An example of this is the “anniversary signs” exhibition held in the London Design Museum in 2015, to mark the 50th anniversary of the introduction of Calvert’s signs. Describing the exhibition, the curators — Made North — said “Leading artists and designers have transformed the familiar circle, triangle and square signs.” One sign particularly of note, a circular sign, features a crossed out swastika, and is called “No Right Turn.” It was designed by the FUEL design group, and makes a bold antiracist/anti-fascist statement.
Calvert’s designs have become iconic in their own right, to the point where they have been used in popular culture to make a political statement — something which is a far cry from the original design intentions.
Even Transport, the signage’s typeface, has been extended and digitised to become “New Transport,” and is the only typeface used on the UK government’s website — praised for its role in accessibility for those with visual impairments by the website’s designers. What started as letterforms for a specific purpose has now become synonymous with the UK, as Gill Sans is synonymous with the BBC and Johnston with Transport for London.
In the silhouette of a little girl lives a literal piece of Margaret Calvert. If the road signs were to be redesigned now, is it likely that a single designer would be given the freedom to have this much influence over a major institution?
Within the constraints of the rules visualised by the typometer, is the opportunity for information designers to influence culture, under the right set of circumstances, as a result of their design choices — almost like a ripple effect. To what extent should designers be afforded this influence?
Having said that, on any project as large scale as road signs, it may not be possible not to leave some kind of an unintentional mark. In the words of Jock Kinneir, our dependence on direction signs and street names “is a need which has bred a sub-division of graphic design with more influence on the appearance of our surroundings than any other.” Perhaps it is the case that designers have more influence on society and culture than they realise, but if they are using that influence for good, to improve the world and to create information design which is universal and multi-cultural, I’m not sure it’s an issue that they have left such a mark.