Many of the signs were dirty. Others were faded, damaged, or obscured. All of them, even those in reasonable condition, were difficult to decipher because of design flaws—too much information squeezed into too small a space, or too many different styles of lettering and symbols.
These road signs were photographed in July 1961 on a seventeen-mile car journey between Marble Arch in central London and what was then called London Airport, now Heathrow. The photographs were taken by graphic designer Herbert Spencer for publication as two visual essays in Typographica, the independent design journal he founded in 1949 and had edited ever since. Spencer’s objective was to expose the chaotic state of the UK’s antiquated road signage system and shame the government into modernizing its design.
He succeeded. When Spencer published the photographs in Typographica in 1961, they caused such a storm that the government commissioned an official review of all UK road signage, and that report’s recommendations have defined the country’s roadside graphic language ever since. Why—and how—did Spencer’s roadtrip photos have such impact?
The answer is largely due to Spencer himself and the magazine he founded. Passionately committed to championing new forms of graphic design, he was a charismatic figure who combined a formidable intellect with eclectic cultural interests. Writing in Eye magazine following Spencer’s death in 2002, graphic designer Ken Garland described him as having an “impressive appearance (a thatch of flaming red hair, a natty bow tie, a mysteriously aristocratic manner).” He also noted that Spencer was indefatigable when fighting for his chosen causes.
Typographica was an invaluable tool in those crusades. Not only did Spencer have complete control of the magazine as its founder, editor, and designer, he could count on the unstinting support of its publisher and printer, Lund Humphries. Spencer was twenty-five when he persuaded the company to give him carte blanche to produce a biannual journal on contemporary visual culture. Typographica was a labor of love and every penny it made was invested in its production, enabling Spencer to experiment with esoteric design details such as contrasting paper stocks, gatefolds, and silvered pages, all the while showcasing the quality of Lund Humphries’s printing.
Spencer was also free to commission the magazine’s contents, and he filled it with texts and visual essays by artists, designers, and other friends on the many subjects that intrigued him. Favorite themes included radical developments in graphic design and typography such as Dutch motorway signs and early computer fonts, and experimental poetry. Spencer was also adept at securing stellar contributors. Among them were the art critic John Berger, who shared a piece on the relationship between words and images; and the artists Richard Hamilton and Dieter Roth, who became firm friends—and collaborators—after Hamilton interviewed Roth for Typographica about the books he was making.
Vernacular design featured in Typographica from the start. Upon moving to London from New York in 1960, graphic designer Robert Brownjohn spent a day photographing his new city’s commercial signs for the journal. But, by then, Spencer was obsessed with the need to modernize the country’s mass graphic design programs, which affected millions of people’s lives, starting with road signs. Several specialist organizations such as the Road Research Group were mounting similar campaigns but their arguments were mostly given in weighty, data-heavy reports. By presenting a visual exposé of the problem, Spencer made his case clearer, more compelling, and harder to dispute. After the official review advised the government to commission a new road signage system, designers Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert were invited to develop it. Most of their signs remain in use today, and their original system continues to be revered as a model of clarity and precision and one of the UK’s finest examples of truly modern mass design.
Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. Her books include Design as an Attitude published by JRP|Ringier and, most recently, Design Emergency: Building a Better Future, co-authored with Paola Antonelli and published by Phaidon. Antonelli and Rawsthorn have also launched a Design Emergency podcast.