AB Thinks  →  23rd June 2017

The art of design

Charlie Battersby

What constitutes good design? It’s a difficult question to answer as design is a subjective field and taste often divides opinion.

Graphic design on the other hand should, in theory, be slightly easier to define. Graphic design is a visual language and the basic role of a graphic designer is to present and communicate information with clarity using signs, symbols, words and pictures. A successful creative outcome lies in the simplicity of a design. Simplicity, however, can be a complicated thing to achieve.

My favourite examples include the work of the Design Research Unit, a group that was responsible for the branding for British Rail, including the iconic double arrow. Jock Kinnear was a talented designer and typographer at the Design Research Unit before leaving in 1956. A year later, he was commissioned, along with his assistant Margaret Calvert, to develop a unified signage system for Britain‰’s road network.

Previously, road signs were haphazard and varied greatly. The pair set about redefining what was most important in the signage. “Style never came into it,” said Calvert. “You were driving towards the absolute essence. How could we reduce the appearance to make the maximum sense?” A new typeface (Transport) was developed, designed to be read at speed and everything, from reading distances to colour against moving backgrounds, was scrutinised.

The first road signs went up on the new Preston by-pass in 1958 and the system remains, mostly, as it was over 60 years ago. I’d wager that many would never give the humble motorway sign a second thought, least of all the process behind it which sets it apart as one of the most effective examples of graphic design in the world.

Which brings me back to the question of what is good design? Perhaps, the most effective design is when the viewer understands the message being communicated, rather than the nuances of the work and designer behind it. While that’s frustrated me in the past, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I believe that when people get the message, then we have succeeded.