Margaret Calvert is one of Britain’s unsung heroes, a British typographer (born in South Africa) and graphic designer. She designed many of the road signs used throughout the UK’s crown dependencies and in British Overseas Territories. She was also responsible for designing the transport font used on roadsigns, and the rail alphabet font that’s used on the British railway system.
The transport font was further developed by both Kinnear and Calvert into what became called New Transport, and that font is still used today, not just on road signs but also online for the government website – gov.uk.
Whilst at the Chelsea College of Art she was tutored by Jock Kinnear who later asked her to help him design the signs for Gatwick Airport. By 1957 road transport was growing quickly. The plethora of different signs and different fonts and colours was creating confusion for drivers and failing to communicate to them the necessary information.
Kinnear was appointed head of science for British roads, and he hired Calvert to help him redesign the whole system. It was Calvert that came up with the idea of pictograms including the recognisable ‘man struggling with umbrella’ indicating roadworks. I understand that the farm animals sign is based on a cow called Patience that lived near Calvert as she grew up.
Calvert worked on the development of motorway signs before the first section of the M1 was due to open. She ran numerous tests to understand the impact of passing information to drivers travelling at speed.
How much time do you have to get the message across?
Since cars would be travelling fast on the new motorways the road signs had to get the information to the driver in a succinct way. It was important to consider not just the colours of the background and of the type, as well as the font that was used. She also had to think about what words were on the signs. Thinking about the message as well as the messenger. She undertook a lot of work to understand what the drivers would need to know at each point on the road.
In business too, our prospects have little time, progressively less and less, to assimilate the barrage of information being presented to them every day. If our products and services are to stand the chance, we need to give them just the right information at the best moment for them to know it. We, as business people, also need to do so in a succinct way. It is for this reason that I consider ‘signposting’ one of the key strategies of any business.
What will make your message effective?
Calvert also worked with Kinnear to understand content. In that work, she identified that travellers on fast roads were generally travelling longer distances, their ultimate destination was most likely some distance away. What they needed was reassurance that they were on the right road, and that they hadn’t gone too far. Signposts communicate both a general direction, and the next large town. With those two pieces of information, a driver can tell that they’re driving in the right direction and have not yet reached their destination.
When we think about our prospects in business, they too are not always ready to jump straight to the destination of buying our product or service. They want to explore it first. They want to understand the options, the alternatives, and so on. So, we need to signpost to them where they are on the buying journey and reassure them that with us they’re on the right road.
We might do this with a short video, we might do it with a PDF or a landing page that allows them to know that they are indeed looking at something that might add value to them.
How should you present the detail?
Calvert’s work showed that drivers often only have fractions of a second, a glance, to gather information. The shorter they could make the transition of information from the signs to the drivers mind the more attention the driver could place on the road itself and therefore improve safety.
In business too we could seek to provide the information in similar bite sized chunks. If our information requires our prospects a long time to absorb, many will turn away. When they get the key information quickly, those whom we can work with effectively will be reassured that they are looking at something relevant. Then they will move on to the next part of their journey.
There are also small signs on our roads, markers of distance, or locations, for a particular point for example. These tend not to be visible as you travel quickly, yet if you break down and have to stop on the hard shoulder, they allow you to give the recovery services precise information about your location. In business too, we need to be able to give our clients and our prospects, the means of understanding our offer, if they stop and spend time examining it. Designing your signposts to address these different needs isn’t easy, it needs thinking through and designing with care. Done well it can transform the sales journey.
Does colour matter?
Finally, Calvert spent a long period testing and designing the choice of colours for the signs. The blue background for motorways and green for A-Roads is no accident. Again, in a glance it helps communicate specific information.
In our businesses to we need to think about the presentation of information. How to use colour and typeface to help highlight the key points and to present data in ways that’s easy to understand. My good friend, Paul Laughlin, works with data analytics teams in larger organisations. He is an expert in both the analysis of data, but, importantly of the ways of presenting data to unlock comprehension.
He knows that when you present information you may only have a few seconds to catch attention. The presentation of data visually is a science in its own right. Margaret Calvert moved that science forwards by leaps and bounds through her work. As business people, we may not be designing road signs, but we have the same challenges. Our prospects and our clients deserve the same attention to detail that has kept many of us safe on British roads, without us even knowing about the work and effort that made us safe.
Look at your marketing. Consider whether the information you’re providing at the point you provided it is sufficient or overbearing. Do your website headlines allow a reader to know that they’re in the right place? Can they scan the imagery, the fonts, the colours and get a clear message rapidly that enables them to choose to travel further with you?
What signposts are you laying down for your prospects and clients to enable them to choose you for their next project?
If you would like a discussion about how, with better signposts you could be Building Better Business, let’s have a chat.
Image by Markus Spiske on Unsplash