The Design of Road Signs

Even though I read several design blogs, it’s not very often I come across anything about road signs, let alone two different pieces about different influential designers.

Today, I did.

First, there’s this bit on the English pair Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert, who were “the graphic designers standardised the road network, created many of its signs and produced two new typefaces, Transport and Motorway.”

If you’ve ever wondered about the unique typeface requirements of road signs, you’re my soul sibling, and if you’re a Top Gear fan, you’ll recognize Margaret Calvert from her cameo on the show from 2010, when she rode around with James May and criticized his driving.

Then, there’s this bit in the NYT about the origins of the American stop sign. Among the noteworthy bits:

By the engineers’ reckoning, the circle, which has an infinite number of sides, screamed danger and was recommended for railroad crossings. The octagon, with its eight sides, was used to denote the second-highest level. The diamond shape was for warning signs. And the rectangle and square shapes were used for informational signs.

I wonder if this had any bearing on the octagonal, chain-link fence-enclosed structure made popular in recent history by the UFC. Maybe the circle was just too violent.

The topper from this article is that there is a preeminent expert on the history of the stop sign, at least its American incarnation. His name is Gene Hawkins, a professor of civil engineering at Texas A&M University. I’d love to see his business card.

There you go. Feast on the bounty of road sign design geekery.

Update: In comments, Gary adds an amazing bit on the iconic family running highway sign you’ll see only in a few places in Southern California. Great story about a relatively rare sign whose legacy has way outgrown its humble beginnings.




  1. Feeling deja vu a bit, like we had this discussion already. I remember driving South and seeing these signs for the first time, on the beach side, and wondering why they were on the water side, maybe rogue Japanese or something 🙂

    This story finally gives me an answer. Amazing account of a sign that is uniquely local to that small stretch of highway.

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