Margaret Calvert OBE – “I don’t have the time or inclination to answer any more questions regarding my work”
We spoke to Margaret Calvert, the World’s most ubiquitous designer.
You may not realise this, but you probably see the work of Margaret Calvert on a daily basis. In fact, you would struggle to leave the house without encountering her work. Between 1957 and 1963 Margaret, along with the late Jock Kinneir, created the Transport font and a series of pictograms that are now widely used throughout the UK.
Before Kinneir and Calvert’s designs, there was no unified signage system in the UK, which meant there was a highly eclectic and often confusing smorgasbord of signage used on our roads. Now, their creations and derivations of said designs are ubiquitously used, not just in the UK but in many countries throughout the World.
Margaret Calvert’s designs are probably the most widely seen anywhere. She was recently appointed an as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by the Queen, but at the age of 80 Margaret told us that she no longer likes to answer questions regarding her work.
In this very special Creative Chair, we look back and honour one of the World’s most influential designers and examine why no longer likes to discuss her body of work.
Margaret Calvert moved to the UK in 1950, having lived in South Africa since her birth in 1936. She enrolled at St Paul’s Girls school and went on to study illustration at the Chelsea College of Art under the part-time tutelage of Jock Kinneir.
Following her graduation, Calvert began to work with Kinneir on new signage for Gatwick airport. Of the project Calvert said “It was really pioneering. You really believed in it and wanted to be part of it – not in the sense of glory. It was just simply thrilling to be building.”
Kinneir was commissioned to design a concept for a unified road signage system in the, and together with Calvert they refined the Aksidenz Grotesk typeface and named it Transport. The new typeface premiered on the Preston by-pass in 1958 and would later be rolled out to the entire country, by which time Calvert and Kinneir had become business partners forming Kinneir Calvert Associates.
As well as the Transport type and it’s several subsequent revisions, Calvert designed a set of pictograms including images depicting roadworks in progress (colloquially known as ‘man struggling to open umbrella’) and school children crossing; of the latter Calvert said it was “almost like an illustration from Enid Blyton…”.
Over the years several of these images have lost some of their sharpness as copies have been made digitally, so in 2016 Calvert was given the opportunity to revisit her designs. “I was therefore delighted to work again on my design from 1962, and found that there were some subtle improvements I could make”.
There is a lot more information on the British Road Sign Project website, which should be of great interest to graphic designers and road users alike. The Transport typeface and complimentary pictograms are only a small part of the story and sadly the research and care that went into a creating the World leading signage system will go largely unappreciated by most, which may be why these days Margaret is reluctant to discuss her work. It must also be frustrating when a project has such a significant cultural and creative impact that it overshadows anything that she has done since.
This unique edition of The Creative Chair is dedicated to Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir for their outstanding contribution to design.