50 years ago, in the Autumn of 1963, the BBC broadcast the first episode of a new science fiction adventure series: Doctor Who. On November 23, it will celebrate its 50th birthday (although more accurately, it was only alive for 26 years, died, and then regenerated 8 years ago): 50 years (actually 34 years) of thrilling/boring audiences (delete as appropriate) with a simple tale of a 1,000 year old alien with 2 concurrent hearts and 11 consecutive faces, sticking his nose/sonic screwdriver into the affairs of various aliens/historic figures and travelling through time/space in a blue police box which is larger internally than externally (which might explain why the walls wobbled so much during the programme’s early years).
It’s the blue box – the TARDIS – which makes Doctor Who possible. It allows him to travel: to see new places, experience new times and meet new people. Without it he’d just be Doctor Him. In the original scripts, the TARDIS was going to change shape and appearance based on the location and time to which it was travelling – for instance, it would look like a Roman plinth in ancient Rome, an Egyptian sarcophagus in ancient Egypt, a 1960s British Police box in ancient 1960s Britain. Then the BBC looked at their budget, realized the cost of creating all these alternate TARDISes, and just stuck with the last one, explained away by a neat sci-fi line about the chameleon circuits being stuck. So, instead of an ever-changing appearance, the TARDIS was stuck with just one, forever, everywhere.
While The Doctor and his companions would always see the same 1960s blue police box TARDIS wherever he travelled, up until 1963 anyone travelling in real life Britain was confronted by an ever-changing set of road signs. A haphazard array of varying designs with different typefaces, appearances and conventions; signage commissioned by different bodies, designed by various manufacturers and overseen by no-one. In 1961, typographer Herbert Spencer showed this by documenting a short journey from central London to Heathrow airport in a series of photographic essays in Typographica magazine. Even though his journey was basically just going along the A3, it revealed a complete lack of uniformity – inconsistent colours, symbols and typefaces, changing according to the local body which had placed them, serving only to baffle road users.
By 1963 Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert – commissioned by the government to resolve this problem – had changed all this with their unified design vocabulary for all UK road signs, including a brand new typeface which they had designed: Transport.
Kinneir and Calvert’s primary concern was legibility – creating a typeface that could be read clearly at a distance and while travelling quickly. Despite this desire for clarity, however, they were also aware of a need for aesthetics. They avoided the stark, geometric sans serifs which were growing in popularity – instead, motivated by a desire to produce a font that would be sympathetic to the English countryside, they designed a sans serif that would be rounded, friendly and warm.
While Kinneir and Calvert set out to unify signage for the UK, their font was so successful at making roads clearer that it was also adopted for road signage in other countries around the world. Travel to Denmark, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and much of the Middle East, and you’ll use Transport (or a virtually identical bolder variant) to help you find your way.
Like a TARDIS with functioning chameleon circuits, Transport makes effective travel possible, while also managing to remain almost unnoticed – quietly but confidently helping travellers, wherever they find themselves. Transport is an excellent example of a classic typeface that will stand the test of time, carrying out its duties as intended without difficulty. To this day, 50 years later, every road sign in Britain is still typeset in Kinneir and Calvert’s Transport font; a part of the design tapestry of modern Britain. Happy 50th Birthday, Transport.