A view from Dave Trott: Reading the signs
A view from Dave Trott

Reading the signs

Dave Trott recommends

Big data is blind faith

Read more

At art school, in New York, I had a class called visual communication.

Today, this is known as semiotics: language without words.

At the time, it was a difficult class.

Words were the only communication I knew about, but actually that wasn’t true.

Words were the only communication I was conscious of, but there was so much non-verbal communication I wasn’t aware of.

Consequently, we learnt about packaging, typography, colour, shapes, sounds, movement, editing, even body language.

Another expression for semiotics is the study of signs.

And the purest, most powerful form of that was road signs.

Information that had to be stripped down to its simplest, most impactful.

Signs that could mean the difference between life and death.

In Britain, we have one of the best systems of road-sign language in the world.

It was designed by Margaret Calvert in the 1960s.

She had recently graduated from Chelsea School of Art and, together with Jock Kinneir, was given the brief for signage on the UK’s first motorway.

There was to be no speed limit, and no-one knew how anyone would be able to read a stationary sign when someone was travelling at 100mph.

So clarity was everything.

Which is why I love the way Margaret Calvert researched her designs.

She took them to Benson Airfield in Oxfordshire and fixed them to the top of a car.

Then, at different speeds, she drove them towards a group of seated airmen.

And then she found out at what distance and what speed they could read the signs.

That’s something most designers won’t do – they’ll judge their designs in an office on a table.

But her designs couldn’t work like that.

Her designs weren’t about subjective preferences, like whether anyone liked them.

Her designs had to communicate – it was semiotics in its purest form.

So they were judged in the context they had to work in, moving at speeds up to 100mph.

Which is why they are such superb examples of clarity.

The motorway signs were such a success that she was asked to design the signage for the entire road system.

This isn’t an exercise in style, this is an exercise in making the complicated simple.

The different roads had different speed limits and needed different information.

So she broke it down as follows:

Motorways would be white on blue.

A roads would be white on green (with numbers in yellow).

B roads would be black on white.

And there would be a simple system to emphasis what was being communicated.

So shapes were introduced as follows:

Triangles for warnings.

Circles for commands.

Squares for information.

As Margaret Calvert said: "Direction signs are as vital as a drop of oil in an engine, without which the moving parts would seize up."

No decoration, no subjectivity, no emotional preferences.

Just the functional clarity needed for the job.

Nothing to do with whether anyone involved liked it or not.

Pure semiotics: purely about how well it worked.

I wish more people in our business could learn to think like that.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.