“It was such an important job that affected everybody”
Margaret Calvert in conversation with It’s Nice That
Margaret Calvert opens her front door, overlooking a quiet residential cul-de-sac in Islington, and welcomes me into her home with a broad smile. Inside, along the narrow corridor and into the living room, the walls are covered in graphic posters and typographic prints. We are simply surrounded by letters. Only a typographer would live here.
We interviewers are often fond of saying that our interviewee “needs little introduction”, but in the case of Margaret this is undeniably true – it’s even a touch understated. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration at all to claim that every person in the United Kingdom (and a fair few abroad as well) will have seen or come into contact with her work at some point or other. How many other graphic designers can lay claim to that kind of impact and ubiquity?
Born in South Africa in 1936, she moved to the UK when she was a teenager and went on to study at the Chelsea College of Art. It was here that she met her long-term collaborator Jock Kinneir, who she went on to work with for several decades. Their work on the UK’s road signing system was – in her words – a key part of “Britain rebuilding after the war”. And it’s still in evidence today up and down the land. The letterform used on the signs, known as Transport, will look familiar to anyone who has driven on the UK’s roads.
I sat down with Margaret over a cup of tea and some traditional South African rusks to discuss her career to date, the importance of good teachers, and why she doesn’t want to be “hived off in a women’s group”.
INT: You studied at Chelsea College of Art and that’s where you first met Jock Kinneir. Looking back, how would you describe yourself then?
MC: I would have been 19 when I first met Jock. I studied illustration and printmaking, and after a two-year intermediate course, where you did everything – sculpture, painting, lots of life drawing – you were then asked to choose between fine art or printmaking and illustration. I chose printmaking and illustration. There was no graphic design at that time. The head of the course was a man called Brian Robb, a very well-known illustrator and painter at that time, and it was Brian’s idea to bring in a graphic designer to set a project, one day a week. Hans Schleger, the most admired graphic designer of the 50s and 60s, came in one day a week to do that. I remember he said: “At 19, you’re too old to even start thinking about learning typography.” That was his attitude. He was very grand. When he went, Jock replaced him. Jock had just left Design Research Unit, which was the Pentagram of that period. He wanted to set off on his own, which he did, and he found this place in Old Barrack Yard, just off Knightsbridge.
INT: “Three rooms above a garage” – that’s how you described it somewhere.
MC: Yes, he let two out, but in the end, we occupied all of them, when we became Kinneir Calvert Tuhill. Anyway, he set us a project combining illustration with lettering, which I immediately latched on to. He obviously saw that I was somebody who appeared to be applying herself. He’d been appointed to do all the graphics and signs for the new Gatwick Airport and he needed an assistant, so he just came up and said: “Would you be interested in helping me?” To go straight from art school to work for one of your tutors was phenomenal. I was so excited. But then the next week, it was all off. I have no idea why. I thought maybe the commission wasn’t going to happen. As you can imagine, I was completely deflated. It wasn’t going to happen.
At that time, I lived in North Ealing with my mother and sister and most of Jock’s work was exhibition design. One project of his was at Wembley. He was coming back from Wembley one day and we just happened to meet on Ealing Broadway station. I think the shock of seeing me, just suddenly, it was all on again. So, if we hadn’t met… Life is pure chance in that respect. I was of course completely over the moon. When I asked him what it would involve, he said: “Absolutely nothing like what you’ve been doing at Chelsea.”
INT: Then what happened?
MC: I went, I had coffee, I saw what he was doing, and just settled down to doing painstaking artwork. I did everything, in fact – made the coffee, a bit of typing, but I was useless at that (if you don’t want to do something, just be useless at it and you won’t be asked again). So, it was artworking and going to Gatwick Airport with great big sheets of paper with letters on to make judgements on how far away you could read them, and beginning with designing a typeface, because there weren’t any suitable faces at that time. I think that’s when I started putting my spoke in, because if I saw something which I thought could be improved, for whatever reason, it was just him and me. He didn’t treat me like an assistant at all.
INT: When Jock came in and set that initial project, why do you think you, in your words, “latched on” to it so completely? Where do you think your fascination came from?
MC: That’s a really good question that I’ve never thought about before. I think you gravitate to something that you’re beginning to understand and seeing that it’s a discipline you could really enjoy and is a challenge as well. Enjoyment is so important. And if you get a teacher that is good at delivering their subject, you just take off.
I just loved how, with artwork, you’d get a setting, but the spacing between the actual letters wasn’t quite right, so you’d have this Swann-Morton knife and you’d take thin little slithers off 9-point type and then wiggle it a bit using Cow Gum to get it exactly right. Then you’d paint out the bits between. All that took ages. It’s so different from what we do now.
INT: When you’re that young and in art school and someone comes in and shows you something that’s more about problem-solving, I guess, than about expression –
MC: Absolutely. It wasn’t about self-expression at all.
INT: Was that one reason why you found it so interesting? Because illustration must have been more about self-expression, right?
MC: That’s right. One thing that did upset me at Chelsea – they did make their remarks about the students and I suddenly found one that upset me very much. It said: “Realistic but with taste.” I didn’t want to be that! But I understand that now, because that’s exactly what it was. That was Brian Robb, who said that.
INT: “Realistic but with taste.” Do you think maybe he recognised something of your inner graphic designer there?
MC: Could be, yes.
INT: You were talking just now about your early work with Jock Kinneir, what that work looked like day-to-day. How did you feel about it, though?
MC: I liked the importance of it – I don’t mean in terms of status, but that it was real. This was England rebuilding after the war, with the motorways. And to be working on such an important job and meeting with architects and all these designers, who were making it all happen – that was the late 50s and 60s for me. And yes, absolutely, I thought this is something worthwhile. I didn’t want to be a struggling illustrator working away in an attic.
Drawing for New Transport, the typeface used across GOV.UK
“I thought this is something worthwhile. I didn’t want to be a struggling illustrator in an attic.”
INT: Lots of people would likely point to that time, the late 50s and 60s, and the road signage system as the point your career took off. Did it feel epic and career-defining at the time? Or were you just doing the work in front of you?
MC: We were very aware of the importance of it, aware that this was a big job. But we were also aware that it would be very difficult to pull off, there was a lot to be done. Jock was commissioned, I was there working with him, just the two of us to begin with, and I remember Jock saying to me: “If this ever happens, it’s going to be amazing.” Because it was such an important job that affected everybody.
INT: Looking at that work you did on the UK road signing system, what did your process, working with the government, look like?
MC: We made presentations – I say “we”; I made one, when Jock had Asian flu. It was at the pictogram stage that I made a presentation, and that was my “Man at Work” one with the spade that keeps being misinterpreted. I can remember there were quite strong comments coming in from them, like “it looks like a diver”. We would show the work to the Committee, come back with their comments, and re-do things. It took a period of five years. The signs were completely radical if you compare them with the signs that were in existence then, so there were bound to be people who objected to them. One complaint was “they’re too big”, “they’re the size of a house”. Well, they were the size of a house; well, not quite.
A man called Kindersley, a very well-known engraver on stone from a well-known family in that kind of design, he had previously been involved with work for the Ministry of Transport. As a consequence, he wasn’t very flattering about our proposal to use sans serif, upper and lowercase letters. He had his own letterform. He argued that the terminals of the letters tend to fade, so he put a sort of blob serif on them, a sort of thickening, and of course, he believed completely in capitals. But the whole point of upper and lower case is that to read place names, you read the shape at a distance, not every letterform; whereas with capitals, you just see a length.
This was all in the papers and he got lots of support and we were supported by those who backed modernism, because that’s where we were at – we were attempting to do the most for the least sum of money, just cutting it down to the absolute essence to make it work. Anyway, the committee simply took the decision and went with what we did, because Kindersley’s was just so ugly. So, it was finally on an aesthetic basis.
INT: Talk me through how you created the typeface Transport.
MC: Well, we didn’t like to call it a typeface, as Transport was a letterform specifically designed to be read by the driver, whilst travelling at speed. Initially, we were asked by the Anderson committee to use the German letterform, already established on the Autobahns, as being appropriate. A request we chose to ignore, believing that the German sans serif, although demonstrably effective, wouldn’t sit well in an English landscape. So, we started from scratch, with a letterform based on Akzidenz Grotesk. Important details, like the curves at the end of several terminals, were specifically designed to help maintain the shape of place names when slightly letter spaced – a necessary compromise to aid word recognition, when read at the appropriate decision-making distance. And then it’s no longer Akzidenz Grotesk. It’s its own self. A bit like looking at a Rembrandt painting close up; you see all these abstract brush marks and they only make sense when you step back.
When the motorways were eventually accepted, they set up the Warboys Committee. That was the entire road network. If you look on Wikipedia, it says we were “responsible for some of the road signs”. We weren’t – we were responsible for thinking out an entire system as well as designing how it was to be, the arrangement of the information and the pictograms that followed. It wasn’t just “some road signs” – that is such an understatement!
INT: Throughout all of this, you were working with Jock Kinneir…
MC: Of course. Nothing would have happened without Jock. This is something really important to state. I have to keep saying that this was a job that Jock was commissioned to do, I happened to be working with him at the time. It was a team effort.
INT: When you look at some of the great creative double acts over the years from different disciplines, it seems to me that you two were one of those collaborative duos that seem to bring the best out of each other.
MC: I would accept that. And I’m sure Jock would accept that, too.
INT: You mentioned earlier that when you have a teacher who inspires you, it can change the course of your life…
MC: Yes. Teaching is everything.
“The signs were completely radical, if you compare them with what was in existence.”
Margaret’s home office
INT: You have, of course, had a career as a designer, but you’ve also had a parallel career as an educator. I’m curious to know, do you think of them as two separate careers or one?
MC: In terms of art and design education, there are what people might call “career academics”. I would not want to be taught by a career academic; I would rebel against that. But to get someone who’s practicing, who’s successful, who inspires me to find my own way, that’s what I respect. The thing I learnt was never, ever talk down to students as if you’re some kind of god. I learnt an immense amount from the students. It was very much an exchange of thoughts and ideas, which is very stimulating. I don’t think I could be labelled as an educator in the strict sense of the word – I think I was just lucky that it all fell into place. No-one taught me how to teach. You find your own way and you just learn.
INT: Before we started our interview, you said something I’d like to return to. You said that, as a woman, you sometimes don’t feel you deserve accolades when they’re presented to you.
MC: I might be wrong there, because there are now some very strong-minded women. But whenever I get invited to contribute to books on women designers, I always turn them down. Because you should be judged by your work, not your gender. I don’t want to be hived off in a women’s group. I’ve arrived where I’m at now with collaboration and help, mainly from men. That’s how it is with me. But in the 1950s, women were brought up to be, in a way, subservient to men, to find a husband before you’re 21, have babies and support him in his opinion. Well, I never went down that path at all. But you always have to hold your own, and I could be put down in a meeting by a remark like, “She was very aggressive.” Well, I wasn’t – I simply had a point of view and women weren’t expected to have a point of view.
Initially in the 60s, there were a lot of graphic designers setting up on their own, one-man units, and then they would employ a woman; they had usually to be attractive and all of that – that’s what they wanted, that’s what they got. And these women did everything for them. At Pentagram at that time, they were all women assistants, all wearing the uniform of very short miniskirts, all in black. I thought, that’s not me at all. I was never going down that path, but I did have to work hard to keep my point of view in certain circumstances. When you’re working with any client, once they know what you have to say, respect comes in, respect and trust. You have to argue your point of view, some of them fight really hard and challenge you, on such issues as “the type’s too small”, and then suddenly their attitude would change and it’s all fine.
INT: Looking at some of the accolades you’ve received over the years – an OBE, Royal Designer for Industry, honorary degrees, lifetime achievement awards, I could go on. Which are you personally most proud of?
MC: I’ve never thought of that actually. Because each one is a complete surprise and I think any minute now they’re going to change their mind or they’ve been misinformed or they’ve got the wrong person.
INT: Surely by now, that’s not how you think about it?
MC: No, I’m very vulnerable on that sort of stuff. It’s a mood thing, to a certain extent. But there are times when I think what I’ve done is absolutely… great, really.
INT: Most people would agree with you!
MC: I remember Icon Magazine gave awards for various things to designers, and one they gave to Thomas Heatherwick was, I think, “Designer of the Year” or something like that. Then, the next year, I get this email awarding it to me. Now I couldn’t accept that! I wasn’t going to believe that at all.
“You should be judged by your work, not your gender. I don’t want to be hived off in a women’s group.”
INT: Why not?
MC: Because Thomas Heatherwick is huge, isn’t he? Anyway, I don’t always think like that now. I’m now arguing that the discipline I work in, particularly designing letterforms and typography, is as great as the more acceptable disciplines, like architecture and product design. Because I think I could design a building or certainly a place to live in, but no way could an architect design a letterhead. The other thing is, if you can design a book, everything in it, well that’s a product and that’s a very difficult thing to do. I have other points of view, but I’m not going to get too fired up.
INT: Please do! I’m curious to hear your opinions on these things.
MC: Well, I think a lot of design is done so quickly now, digitally, on-screen – and somehow, when you see something on a screen, because it’s back-illuminated, it always looks finished, and you never pursue it, you never go the extra mile. I believe certain projects can be done quickly and that’s very satisfying, but there are other projects that you need to really break down and work at. Solutions, particularly with the work I do, are already there, they’ve always been there – you’ve just got to dig them up. As opposed to the looseness and the freedom of just doing anything and saying that works enough. To me, it’s a service – technology is to be used by me, not to control me.
INT: What are you working on now? What’s keeping you busy these days?
MC: My balance of work is: projects that affect the public at large; and others of a more personal nature, in a sense, more fun. The ones I enjoy that I’m not paid for are the ones I would put under the heading of “Play”. The last job I really enjoyed on the “Play” side was for the Design Museum, when it invited 30 artists and designers to do anything with “30”, because it was its 30th anniversary. Immediately, what was fun and a challenge for me was, why don’t I do a road sign? Because no-one else can do that, that’s my field! And no-one else would actually want to and that’s the thing – we were all so diverse.
I also collaborate a lot with Henrik Kubel and we’ve worked together on several large projects within the public realm. So, we’ve digitised New Rail Alphabet and customised New Transport, which is now used across GOV.UK. I’m lucky, because all that artwork bit, that’s all done digitally now and anything that’s digital, if I put the idea in an email with a few photos, Henrik takes it on and it’s done. That’s a brilliant way of working, isn’t it? I get the fun and he gets all the hard work! But of course, our working process, on large fee-paying commissions, is much more collaborative, in every respect.
Every project is a challenge and you try not to repeat yourself. That’s how it is for me. Until I’m no longer. You know, I’ve reached the dying age. Because most people die in their 80s, don’t they? I don’t want to hang on to 90 or whatever. But I’ve got lovely things to be doing. It’s all good stuff. I’m lucky, I think I’m lucky.