The most important and longest lasting graphic design job in the world had its fiftieth birthday in 2015.
There are pieces of graphic design that have lasted longer, the logo of Rome for example is getting on for two and a half thousand years old. But the design of Britain's road signs has saved more lives which, in my eyes at least, makes it vastly more important. Why? Because importance should be measured by effect, how the world gets changed, and saving human lives in their countless thousands is about the biggest effect you can have.
You can read about it here.
But parts of this exemplary project are showing their age. One or two of the pictorial signs in particular, the ambiguity they always had is being read differently half a century after they were drawn. Especially the sign that shows two hunched doddery old people.
Design guru Michael Wolff and design studio NB decided to mount a competition to see if a better alternative could be created.
(Actually, as Michael and Alan and Nick of NB discovered, this sign was not part of the original 1965 set designed by Kinnear/Calvert, but stuck on in 1981.)
The thrust of the Wolff/NB competition was that older does not mean incapable. Just because someone reaches advance age does not mean they are slow and vulnerable.
FOCUS ON CHARACTERISTICS
The Kinnear/Calvert signs are mostly very literal, a man working to represent men working, children running to represent children running... this sign however uses the caricature of old people to convey an idea. That old people can be slow crossing the road, so you should slow your speed. (Fat chance of that happening, by the way.)
The website that lays out all the legislative detail is well worth a visit. The sign of frail old people is meant to convey "frail or disabled pedestrians likely to cross road ahead". No mention of old... but old used to represent slowness.
Go slow to avoid hitting the slow.
But the problem with old people as a metaphor, is that they are by no means always slow, or even the slowest. Slow as in disabled. Slow as in parent with pram. Slow as in parent with walking toddler. Slow as in group of indecisive tourists. Slow as in man with leg in plaster. Slow as in crocodile of school kids.
Which leads us to another kind of solution. Finding ways of representing attributes, characteristics of many people, rather than attributing one characteristic to one type.
TOWARDS A SOLUTION
We need something eye catching, that is instantly clear. Something that represents slowness incarnate.
This seems like a great clue: "The animals which may be depicted on warning signs include cattle, deer, ducks, elk, frogs, horses, sheep, monkeys... The [Vienna Convention of 1968 for Europe-wide rational road signs] allows any animal image to be used."
And its these animal signs that we all love isn't it?
What might we use to represent "slow"? What is slowness incarnate?
What is great about using an animal is you are avoiding the complexity of human culture, where 70 and 80 year olds can have more physical stamina than most people a fraction of their age. Think of lithe energetic Mick Jagger (72), the furious energy of Lionel Blair (84), and priapism of Rupert Murdoch newly engaged (84). Do you think any of these elderly people shuffle across roads tapping sticks? They laugh - with mouths resplendent with perfect capped and titanium screw-mounted teeth - at the idea of walking sticks.
With animals you are drawing on the clarity of Aesop, writing over two millennia ago, noticing and emphasising characteristics we all understand; cats are stealthy, dogs craven, cockerels are vain. We understand these characteristics the world over.
Once you start with the crystal clear metaphors animals give you; fast, tall, bendy, busy, dangerous ...
This is just a sprinkling. We could have kept going, but the signs are very hard to source imagery for and draw. It was turning into a large job, and we felt this was enough to prove the point, that: as a way of communicating, with urgency, with clarity and humour, animals rock.
Often more sloth than bee