Creative

When Design is the Hero

Perhaps without even realising, we absorb signs/icons and their designs daily, quickly interpreting and understanding their meaning.

In the present day, we could put this down to repetition – But there was a point when we were seeing these signs for the first time. Of course, their context has helped us come to a conclusion, but in order to understand their meaning in record time, we have their design to be thankful for.

We take a look at how graphic design has shaped common signs we are all too familiar with today, which quite frankly, we would be a mess without.

A Design Route

In 1965, the road signage system was created by two London designers – Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert – using a mixture of lowercase and uppercase letters for the utmost recognition. When testing a full uppercase approach, the designers found this combination to be a better way of conveying information much more smoothly.

Especially when such signs would be viewed while we’re driving at speeds of up to 70mph.

Perhaps without realising, we have adopted an acknowledgement of road sign shapes and their meaning. For example, circles are used for signs that give orders, while triangles deliver warnings and rectangles give us information. But it isn’t just shape or typography we have become accustomed to…

What about colour?

One of the best ways to discuss colour in popular places is of course, health and safety signage. These well known signs can be broken down into four colour categories.

  1. Red

    When used in a safety sign, red can most often be seen as a prohibitory sign, such as ‘no entry’, ‘no mobile phones’ or ‘no smoking’. In other words, don’t do it.  
  2. Yellow or Amber

    As with traffic lights, yellow or amber is seen as a warning colour. This colour can be seen on ‘mind the step’, ‘dangerous chemicals’ or ‘danger high voltage’ signs.  
  3. Blue

    A mandatory colour to follow, the use of the colour blue is to be taken as an order. Where will you most likely spot blue signage? On ‘fire door keep shut’ stickers, ‘eye protection must be worn’ signs and those instructing us to keep a premises tidy.  
  4. Green

    Usually rectangular in design, green signage often points to a specific location such as the closest fire exit, nearest assembly point or where to find first aid.

Designs we’d be lost without

pug with yellow background

If all signs and symbols disappeared tomorrow, we’d all be pretty screwed. Imagine driving on the motorway without knowing where the next services are (snacks are important), having no idea that a road is one way or where to expect a hidden dip. But it isn’t all about being on the road.

Picture this, you’ve just been paid and you’ve treated yourself to a new cardigan. That burger at lunch was messier than you thought and now there’s ketchup all down the front – how the hell are you going to get that out? Well, you’d look at the label right? Unless you wanted your new favourite knitwear to come out a size perfect for your neighbour’s new pug.

Those little laundry symbols – or pictograms – give us all the information we need to know to (hopefully) avoid shrinking or ruining our favourite attire. We take them for granted, but they must have come from somewhere? Well, they do. In the early 1960s, chemical fibers were produced on a wide scale, taking straight forward textile care to a whole new confusing level. Verbal care information was no longer enough and with so many languages to cater for, those symbols we now know and understand were developed.

public toilets sign

It isn’t all about finding things by car. Saving us from embarrassment, popular yellow designs point us to the nearest public toilet, baby changing facility and wheelchair access restroom. These are all symbols we take for granted.

These designs don’t have to be complicated, wordy or glamorous. In fact, we understand their meaning more when they’re simplistic and imitate the object they are portraying.

We’ve seen signs and icons develop with our technology in order to stay current, changing symbols that no longer look like the object it is referring to. But for as long as we have an understanding of colour meanings and their associations, I don’t see these hero designs going anywhere anytime soon.