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Thursday, 22 July 2010

Navigation, Signage and the Wonderful Jock Kinneir & Margaret Calvert

A few weeks ago I found myself driving to London, I’ve made the journey before but hadn’t driven there myself, for quite some time. At the end of the M1 my heart always starts to beat a little faster, will I remember to get in the right lane, will I come off at the right exit, will they have moved the Edgeware Rd, will I find my way to Vauxhall Bridge? It was the end of a scorching day, the motorway was a clear and beautiful space to drive on (after Luton), Map Man was beside me navigating – he doesn’t like parties, is not too keen on London, he was hot and a bit fractious.
The last time we’d been on this route, he had been driving and my Dad and I (both used to the route but not quite paying attention) were being hopeless navigators, there was a detour, which took us onto Abbey Rd – Map Man was really getting pretty frantic, we were lost, we would be late and Miles & Miles weren’t helping at all, eventually he gave us up for a bad job and got out his compass, yes, the old fashioned kind not Sat Nav and we did eventually get to where we were going.
My hopelessness with maps was the reason I was designated driver on our most recent trip, almost time to leave the motorway and Map Man was getting agitated, my instincts and prior knowledge (which I should have trusted) told me to go one way, he was directing me elsewhere (Golders Green, to be precise). Map Man loves maps, understands where he is in relation to physical world and paper representation of world, I navigate by landmark, if I’ve seen it, I’ll remember it. I was swayed as things were looking a bit unfamiliar.......
Having taken the wrong exit, it was quite hard to turn off or turn round, so an unguided tour of familiar sounding places like Highgate, Primrose hill, Camden Town etc ensued, we seemed to be travelling across London in a series of circles and the maps weren’t really helping. I tried to reassure my companion that the rules of navigation by map didn’t really apply in the city, things were apt to change, there may be diversions or direction changes, signs were likely to disappear for long stretches of time but most things tended to reconnect to somewhere familiar at some point, you just had to take a kind of leap of faith. Staying calm also helps, even when some other lost soul is driving towards you the wrong way in your own lane.
Finally we found the Thames and a bit later, Vauxhall Bridge – I almost wept for joy. I recognised a section of wall, some buildings, a roundabout, it’s a bit of a hit and miss way of getting around, but it generally works for me! I think I would probably fare better with the medieval maps Jo described a few entries ago, the ones with the small illustrations of landmarks, today, Street View is very helpful to a ‘by sight’ navigator like me.
What the journey did make me think about was the signage we have on our roads, designed by Jock Kinneir & Margaret Calvert in 1958. They are so part of our everyday that we probably no longer register just what marvels of graphic design they are and how simply and effectively they manage to direct us on our travels, how great they still look and how grateful I felt every time a sign appeared that confirmed I was still heading in the right direction or at least towards somewhere I recognised.
Quote from
“It is sad but true to say that most of us take our surroundings for granted,” Kinneir observed in 1965. “Direction signs and street names, for instance, are as vital as a drop of oil in an engine, without which the moving parts would seize up; one can picture the effect of the removal of this category of information on drivers in a busy city or on pedestrians trying to find their way in a large building complex. It is a need which has bred a sub-division of graphic design with more influence on the appearance of our surroundings than any other.”
I love the fact that Margaret Calvert designed the typefaces (web links below)
to help us on our way.

1 comment:

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uwjXoHLP_7U

    You can see Top Gear's James may talking to Margaret Calvert at the link above


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