mobility and legibility

Manchester motorway sign

There was, perceptably, a golden age of branding and design acting in tandem, when the value of design was truly celebrated in the context of advertising, when brand was still identity, and identity mattered. From global corporations to municipal departments, the development of new, but legible and concise, fonts and logos, throughout the post-war era, was remarkable. The timely and fortuitous collision of mass production and the advanced art of typography, just prior to the advent of the computer as a design tool, saw the mass implementation of quality fonts with perfect kerning and character spacing. It was this early work that laid the visual foundations upon which many brands were to ultimately found their cognitive presence, though in the UK much of the groundwork was for companies and agencies that were, at the time, nationalised.

The work of Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert for the Department of Transport’s (DOT) Anderson and Worboys committees is perhaps exemplar of the quality of output during this period. Their now ubiquitous ‘Transport’ font was developed for the rapidly expanding British motorway network from a German sans serif font, the ironically named Aksidenz Grotesk.  The demand for legibility imposed by the anticipated speed of travel meant that the engineer specified, uppercase, directional signs of the pre-war era would not suffice. Kinneir and Calvert developed a system based on clarity and the geometries of the letters, it was the spacing between the characters that ultimately determined the size of the sign, the content driving the form. The signs were tested in London before being installed along the country’s first motorway, the Preston bypass (M6) in 1958, generally hailed as a success, this initial foray into traffic applications lead ultimately to the pair being commissioned for the wider development of an integrated national highway signage scheme.  The systematic and coded approach that seems so familiar, almost unquestionable, in its expression and application, was at once both pioneering and classical; it remains virtually unchanged to this day.

The shape, colour and iconography used in this type of application are critical and the subsequent familial expansion of this specific system into a universal sign language or pattern is so pervasive that it becomes impossible to negotiate a genealogical construct. The nuances of type, that had been so intricately adjusted and distilled in Europe since the 15th Century, sustain an inter-relationship wherein the distinguishing and mutating serifs and stems and the chronology of their later metamorphoses is too complex to accurately ascribe authorship. Similarly the adoption of recognisable and mutated versions of the icons used in traffic and other functional signage is difficult with respect influence and origin. It should be acknowledged that the work of Kinneir and Calvert drew heavily on continental examples, though reworking of the entire iconographic alphabet by Calvert into the recognisable form, based on the geometries of Transport, were effectively new.

Whilst this type of comprehensive design manifesto is not exclusively the realm of the nationalised services and utilities, though it is perhaps best exemplified by this condition in the UK. The undisputable brand strength of British Telecom, British Rail, Royal Mail, British Gas all have their visual roots in this era. It was in fact Kinneir and Calvert who also designed the British Rail Alphabet; James Cousins  refers to Kinneir and his peers as having been part of a “special generation of British graphic designers”, “trained in the 1930s”.  Livery had been applied to trains since the 1840s, but it was not until nationalisation, and the ensuing brand development, that the graphics of the railway attained the “clarity and quality” attributed to the time.  Cousins also suggests that the success of the BR Alphabet (it was used by Denmark and Norway’s railways and adopted by the British Airport Authority) is down to its legibility  and the test work by Kinneir at the Road Research Laboratory.  Whilst the font was the hand of Kinneir, there were other agencies employed by British Rail, most prominent was the Design Research Unit, for whom Kinneir had previously worked, a celebrated multi-faceted agency that retained architects and interior designers as associates, Sadie Speight and Frederick Gibberd amongst them.

Whilst sign is not the embodiment of most brands, the sign was the most common method of physical communication in a commercial context, whereas livery had perhaps been the preserve of identifiably ‘national’ organisations. As companies and corporations became global in their presence, the convention of inscribing buildings, vehicles and anything else associated with the brand was increasingly commonplace, yet, still, the retention of designers of repute and of testifiable calibre was recognised for the qualitative associated value. In a relationship that spanned over a decade, Eliot Noyes’ work for petroleum giant Mobil anticipated the design of everything, from forecourt to fleet, all governed by a comprehensive design manual. It is this scale and depth of commercial visual communication practice that is akin to the national programmes undertaken and executed in earlier in Britain. Noyes had worked in the office of émigré Walter Gropius, immediately following his graduation and the impact of a pseudo-bauhaus education and the intrinsic attitude toward the holistic nature of design practice and the German tradition of Gesamkunstwerk. Paul Rand for IBM and Dieter Rams at Braun can perhaps be seen to have similar, if not total, impact on the brands for whom they designed. The brand though, if truly successful, becomes bigger than the designer and is governed by rules established and so immutable that they are applied unquestioningly and thus demonstrate their conscious acceptance.

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