Why are motorway signs blue? An Iconic British design

An overlooked yet iconic British design

why are motorway signs blue?

Like the red telephone box, the Routemaster bus and the London Underground, British motorway signs are synonymous with the UK. After a trip abroad, when you pull onto the M20 at Folkestone or the M4 at Heathrow and see those big blue signs, you know immediately that you are back: there is something so very British about them, so un-continental. French, Spanish and German motorway signs are also blue with white text but there is something shared about them, something more exotic, where the signs here are somehow simpler and softer with a more friendly feel.

The big blue motorway signs first came about in the late 1950s when the first motorways were being built. Prior to this road signs were a jumbled affair with a mix of typefaces, sizes and colours. The first road signs were erected by bicycle clubs in the 1880s and were mostly warning signs rather than navigational aids. The advent of cars brought about a flurry of directional signs with a variety of organisations such as the AA providing them. Some standardisation was introduced in 1934 with an official handbook produced and the introduction of the red circular outline sign for instructions and triangular red outline signs for warnings which are still with us today.

Still it was a mess. A smart new formalised set of signage was clearly needed for the new motorways where cars would be travelling at unrestricted speeds, something clear and easy to read. And so the Anderson Committee was formed with Colin Anderson, former chairman of P&O at its helm, given the remit to come up with something uniform and appropriate.

Anderson had previously worked with a designer called Jock Kinneir who had redesigned the baggage labels for P&O. The porters, many of whom could not read, were having trouble deciphering them so Kinneir came up with a system of colours and shapes to make the task easier. Kinneir was approached to come up with ideas and he in turn recruited his former Chelsea School of Art pupil, Margaret Calvert to work with him. Together they set about researching what would work best – at speed, at night, in adverse weather – despite neither of them being drivers themselves.

Initially they were asked to do something fairly similar to the German system which used a font called DIN, considered safe and logical. But Kinneir and Calvert decided to come up with their own new design, feeling the blunt German font wasn’t right for the landscape of Britain. The resulting typeface was known as Transport and it moved away from the more common use of capital letters using lower case instead, considered easier to read. They also illustrated the junctions ahead in map form on the signs and after much thought on colour, settled on the bright blue to contrast with the green of the trees.

The material for the signs was key too: the white letters being reflective and the blue background, which appears as black at night, is non-reflective so that the text stands out clearly. The careful spacing and layout contributed to the clean and legible signs which were largely met with praise from the public, the first signs appearing in 1959 on the Preston Bypass and soon adorning the brand-new motorways all over the country.

uk farm animals road sign
Waning - Farm animals
children crossing road saign
Warning - children crossing

Following on from this, Kinneir and Calvert were asked to design a system of signs for the other roads where the random and the chaotic mishmash of signage was still prevalent. The same rigorous approach was followed with testing at an RAF base where airmen seated on stands had cars with signs mounted on top driven towards them to test readability at various distances. For navigational signs the system comprised green signs for major roads and white signs for minor roads: for other signs, the continental pictorial system was adopted and made their own in the friendly style of the Transport typeface. The farm animals warning sign was based on a cow called Patience from one of Calvert’s relative’s farms and the girl in the school children crossing sign was based on Calvert herself as a child.

On its introduction it had a mixed reaction with some people mocking the simplistic images, comparing the uneven road sign to Diana Dor’s breasts and the man at work’s shovel to an umbrella. Nonetheless it went on to be as successful as the motorway signs and key elements were incorporated into the signage of countries all over the world.

Kinneir and Calvert went on to design the iconic typeface and signage for British Rail as well as working on airports all over the world. But their contribution to the very fabric of British identity is most particularly felt in the big blue welcoming announcements though, seen throughout the country and serving as a role model for road signage the world over.

Did you know...?

Whilst Transport is the typeface used for the Motorways, there is a Motorway typeface too. It consists of a few letters and numbers and is used only for route numbers. If you see it on a non-motorway road sign then it will point to a route which is under motorway regulations immediately.

The Transport typeface has been adopted (and sometimes a bit adapted) by countries all over the world including Hong Kong, Ireland, Portugal, Greece and much of the Middle East.

An updated version by Margaret Calvert is the font used exclusively for the Gov.UK website

Rail Alphabet is the typeface Calvert and Kinneir designed for British Rail. It is not dissimilar to Transport but created with indoor use by pedestrians in mind and first used at Liverpool Street Station.

banksy road sign

Margaret Calvert has collaborated on a secret project with Banksy though she won’t give details out. Could it be this one?

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