Woman at work: Margaret Calvert & the road sign

On the hottest July day on record, Shoreditch Town Hall's seats are filled with perspiring designers – both the new and the more experienced – gathered for a D&AD lecture to be given by the typographer and graphic designer Margaret Calvert.

Margaret Calvert's name may not be well-known outside of design circles where she is deemed an icon but her work is viewed every single day by a large proportion of the population in Britain; communication design at its finest. Margaret Calvert (born 1936) studied at the Chelsea College of Art. It was here, that Calvert's tutor, Jock Kinneir (1917-94), asked her to assist him with designing the signs for the then new Gatwick airport. In 1957, Kinneir was appointed head of signs for Britain's roads. Kinneir hired Calvert and together they created the revolutionary system of road signage still in usage today and considerably copied around the world. One of their more controversial decisions was to opt for a combination of upper and lowercase letters rather than the capitals used on Britain's roads since 1933. After analysing existing typefaces and concluding that there "wasn't one easily understood at speed", they created a new typeface named Transport (New Transport, a new digital version, is now used by gov.uk). Pictograms were devised; 'Farm animals' is based on a cow named Patience whom Calvert knew; the deer and horse are based on Eadweard Muybridge's photographs of animals at speed. Calvert was eager to make the 'school children' sign more accessible with less grammar school overtones as comprehensives were starting up. "...wouldn't it be nice to turn it round..." Calvert said. The boy in a school cap leading a little girl, was replaced with a girl – modelled on a photograph of Calvert as a child – leading a younger boy.  


Listening to Margaret Calvert is a joy. She is honest – occasionally stating, "I'm a bit embarrassed to show you this" – and dryly witty. Calvert's wide-spanning career has included four years as head of Graphic Design at The Royal College of Art where the font she designed, Calvert, was the RCA's house font from the 1990's. Legendary designer Neville Brody, together with Calvert and Henrik Kubel, have since 'remixed' this font into Culvert Brody and this is now used throughout the college. Calvert spoke briefly about one of her own [design] 'heroes' – Thomas Heatherwick, the designer of the New Routemaster bus. "...I love his modesty, he's so humble about his work - and my favourite seat on the Routmaster bus is the front of the top deck" – and what better place for Calvert to survey her own work from. To this day, Calvert continues to "work and play", she has even deconstructed her own road signs and lately created a range of geometric rainbow postcards because she says "I couldn't find any I liked". Possibly closer to the truth is that Calvert admits she's not very good at holidays, "...I have to have something I'm doing". More recently, Calvert has been creating letters with pasta, and how do you make curves with pasta? - "You cook it!".

Now in the midst of the holiday season, Britain's roads are at their busiest. On the plus side though, 'Queues likely', gives us ample time to fully appreciate the work of Calvert, Kinneir and their team's longstanding work. So if you've recently travelled by road or motorway and haven't solely relied on Sat Nav, if you are on the daily commute or school run, or if you're about to negotiate your way through Gatwick Airport to a waiting plane, Margaret Calvert has almost certainly helped you reach your destination.

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