Margaret Calvert: The Mastermind Behind Our Road Signs

Margaret Calvert, the mastermind behind the road signs that we know today, has always had a passion for design.

Calvert was born in South Africa and moved to England at the young age of 14 years old. She enrolled in a four year Illustration course at the Chelsea College of Art in the 1950’s, where she demonstrated exceptional illustration skills. However, illustration was not where her heart was. Her passion lied in designing, but the field of graphic design was not yet introduced at the time.

Aware of Margaret’s high skill level in illustration, Jock Kinneir, who was Margaret’s tutor in college, asked for Margaret’s help when he was appointed to create signs for the Gatwick Airport. A while after, Kinneir was hired as the “Head of Signs” for the roads in Britain when he hired Margaret Calvert to redesign the road sign system – what a great decision!

Being the fact that these were road signs, they had to be designed in a way that was clear enough to quickly read and understand for a drivers speed.

Calvert used her creativity and illustrated the simple pictograms that we all know today. These were:

• “Men at work” the image of a man digging.

• “Farm animals ahead” the image of a cow (Interesting fact: This cow was inspired by a cow named “Patience” that lived on a farm nearby her home where she grew up).

• “Schoolchildren nearby/ahead” the image of a girl leading a boy by the hand (this image was also modelled after herself).

These were some of her signs amongst many!

In close collaboration with each other, Kinnier and Calvert designed many more of the road signs used throughout the UK, Crown Dependencies, and British Overseas Territories. They also created the transport font used on road signs, the Rail Alphabet font used on the British Railway system, as well as early versions of signs used in airports. For a period of 40 years, Margaret Calvert taught at the Royal College of Art and was appointed Head of Graphics from 1987 to 1991.

In addition to the many road signs she’s designed, Margaret developed an interest in lettering and created fonts for many clients, including Monotype Fonts, a well-known typographic corporation.

In recognition of her brilliant work, Calvert was awarded the Honorary Degree at the University of Arts in London in 2004, as well as the Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2016 due to her service in road safety and typography. In 2011, she was made the Royal Designer for the Industry of Graphic Design.

What marvellous work!