How to Ruin a Great Design
Published: March 13, 2011
LONDON — Potholes. Traffic jams. Road closures. Snarky drivers. Security scares. No left turns here. No right turns there. As if that list of the infuriating obstacles you’re likely to encounter when driving around London wasn’t long enough, you can now add something else — sloppily designed traffic signs.
Transport for London
PSA Peugeot Citroën
Duh, you may think. Why grouch about traffic signs, if you risk being stuck in gridlock or snapped by surveillance cameras while making a cheeky U-turn to avoid being “diverted” for several miles? But some of Britain’s new road signs deserve to be grumbled about because they are shameful examples of the category of bad design that is best described as “a crime against design.”
Bad design comes in many forms. Things that are unsafe. Things that don’t work properly, or are unnecessarily complicated. Things that are ethically or environmentally unsound. Crimes against design are different. They deprive us of the joy of great design, by wrecking or replacing it.
Some, though thankfully not all, of Britain’s newest traffic signs are guilty of the first offense by spoiling something special: the road signage system designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert between 1957 and 1967. There was nothing showy about it. Those signs were models of logic and legibility in a pleasing, but unobtrusive style. They were everything that intelligently designed road signs should be.
Take the “Diverted cyclists” sign I spotted in Marylebone recently. It consists of two words, an arrow and a symbol of a cycle. How could anyone mess that up, especially since the typeface is the one designed by Kinneir and Calvert for the original system, and the colors are the same combination of black and yellow that they chose for temporary signs? But mess it up someone did, by inexplicably making the “D” in “Diverted” much bigger than the other letters. Not only does it look clumsy, but your eye is so distracted by the “D” that it is hard to concentrate on what the sign says.
The same applies to other recent changes to Kinneir and Calvert’s meticulously planned system. Symbols are poorly drawn, with distractingly fussy detailing. Inconsistencies appear: one sign reads “Tower Bridge,” another “Tower bridge.” Individually these gaffes seem inconsequential, but collectively they are as confusing as the original designs were clear and reassuring.
The worst of the new traffic signs are typical of what can occur when whoever takes charge of an intelligently designed system lets things slip. It’s easy to see how this can happen. First, no one is likely to care quite so much about the system as the people who conceived it. Second, such systems need to evolve over time: in this instance, with the emergence of new types of road hazards and traffic management technology.
But there is no need for standards to fall. Not all of the new signage is sloppy. Much as I hate the congestion charge that motorists have to pay when driving in or out of central London, its red and white “C” symbol is clear, coherent and pleasing to the eye in Kinneir and Calvert’s unshowy style.
“Letting things slip” isn’t the only sub-category of crimes against design. Another is the “unworthy successor” syndrome, which usually happens when a company hires a design consulting firm to “refresh” an inspired piece of design, only to end up with something similar, but depressingly inferior.
UPS did this by replacing the wonderful “present” logo designed by Paul Rand in 1961, with a dispiritingly bland version devised by the global design group FutureBrand. The new logo is described on FutureBrand’s Web site as “a simplified dynamic curve” that expresses “the evolution of the company’s services and its commitment to leading the future of global commerce.” A waggish design blogger summed it up more succinctly as the “golden combover.” Each time I see it, I yearn for its predecessor.
The same fate befell Citroën, when it hired Landor, another global branding group, to redesign the logo it had used since its foundation in 1919. The old logo was a pair of upturned Vs modeled on the herringbone gears invented by the company’s founder André-Gustave Citroën. Whenever I saw it, I remembered that Citroën was rooted in design and innovation, and had once produced such remarkable cars as the gutsy 2CV and beautiful DS 19 saloon.
Sadly, Landor has reduced the original shapes of those herringbone gears to characterless digital smudges as part of what its Web site calls a “360-degree branding platform,” whatever that means. Rather than looking like a company that is justifiably proud of its engineering heritage (no bad thing for a car maker), Citroën now resembles yet another corporate cookie cutter with a bland, instantly forgettable, but probably rather expensive logo.
Trashing your own design history as UPS and Citroën have done is one thing, but some companies commit another subcategory of crimes against design by compromising someone else’s. McDonald’s did this when it redesigned its European fast food joints, helped by the French designer Philippe Avanzi.
One of the new design schemes included the elegant Egg and Series 7 chairs, designed in the 1950s by the Danish architect Arne Jacobsen. (Even if you don’t know the names, you’ll recognise those chairs as screaming “20th-century classic.”) McDonald’s ordered several thousand of them from the original manufacturer Fritz Hansen, only for an embarrassing row to erupt when it also bought cheap copies of those chairs from another company.
Understandable though Fritz Hansen’s fury was, didn’t the company realize that by selling such distinctive chairs to McDonald’s it risked redefining them from “20th century classic” into something to slump on while scarfing McNuggets? Though that can’t have made it any less furious about an entirely new set of chairs that McDonald’s commissioned from Mr. Avanzi.
It’s tempting to describe those as a McTribute to Jacobsen because the elegant shapes of his chairs have been distorted into kitschy new forms that mock the originals, and add another crime against design to the McDonald’s rap sheet.