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THE WORLD OF
DESIGN AND HOW WE SEE IT

(by iRH DESIGNS)

  • iRH Designs

ROAD SIGNAGE

Yes, they are forms of Graphic Design.

Road signs are everywhere we go, naming our streets, directing us where to go or perform certain tasks, to warnings of road blocks, crossings and animals etc. But most of what we see today, is all post 1957, when designer Margaret Calvert, was asked to design the UK’s fi­rst motorway, with a primary focus of using a font that was easy to read at top speeds and from a distance. The challenge was to convey messages with images, using as little words as possible. Calvert’s designs were greeted with strong criticism in their introduction, considered “too modern”, but ended up being successful, helping to improve safety on Britain’s roads.


Traffic signs provide information about the law, warn about dangerous conditions and guide roadway users, and vary depending upon their use, using different symbols, colours and shapes for easy identi­fication. The United States of America uses a Numbered Highway system, a nationwide grid that dates back to 1926, whose route numbers and locations are coordinated by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Generally, north/south highways have odd numbers that get higher from east to west, while east/west ones have even numbers that get higher from north to south. Major routes mostly end in1s and 0s while three-digit numbers tend to represent secondary or spur highways. Interestingly, all roads lead to prison, in that many of America’s highway signs are made by inmates of Correctional facilities and centres.


Traffic signs have been in use since the time of the Roman Empire’s Bronze age, when roads, tunnels and bridges were built from Portugal to Constantinople, enabling the Romans to move armies faster and bring in more people and goods, helping Rome thrive. The first road sign, therefore was an erected mile marker at intersections specifying the distance to Rome. During the Middle Ages (Europe from the fall of Rome in 476 A.D. to the 14th century), various sign types were placed at crossroads to direct or point people toward different towns. But it wasn’t until travel became faster, with the invention of the bicycle and the automobile, that a need for better road signs developed, while most middle-class families were unable to afford cars until the 1920s. Early signs were composed of wood and placed on iron columns, many of which were then used to supply metal for World War II. Signs at this point, were not reflective and followed no standardization as they do today, while vehicles operated at lower speeds, and drivers were expected to watch out for other vehicles and obstacles for themselves, the evolution of travel was changing with more people on the roads, and therefore so did the signs. Standardization or uniformity to mark and sign roadways, began in 1922 and consisted of; Round for Railroad crossing warnings, Octagons to stop, Diamond to show that precautions need to the be taken in a specific area, Square to show some care needs to be taken occasionally, Rectangular for directional or regulation information and Star-Shaped used to mark highways. These early signs were white backgrounds with black letters or symbols and instead of being hand-painted as in the past, the border and the lettering or symbols would be embossed or pushed into the metal allowing signs to be made in larger quantities. Manuals for standard signs and traffic control devices were printed between 1923 and 1927, during which time and thereafter, variations and changes were made including warning signs to be black on yellow background (1924), stop signs to be illuminated at night, accomplished by the use of glass spheres or “cats eyes” placed around the border or by using floodlights (1935), simplifying and eliminating unnecessary words (1948), the colour change from black on yellow to white on red for stop signs (1954), construction warning signs were changed to be black on yellow (1961), white on green was made the standard colour for guide signs (1971), and a minimum level of retro-reflectivity on all signs from 1992 onwards. 


Present-day sign colour meanings:

  • Red: Used to stop, yield and prohibition

  • White background: regulatory sign

  • Yellow: general warning message

  • Green: permitted traffic movement and directional guidance

  • Fluorescent yellow or green: School or pedestrian crossings

  • Orange: Warnings and guidance in construction zones

  • Blue: Road service, tourist information or evacuation routes

  • Brown: Guidance to recreational or cultural interest sites

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