From War to Worboys:
1950s experiments

Wordy signs and prominence given to route numbers, in an advert from November 1963. Click to enlarge
Wordy signs and prominence given to route numbers, in an advert from November 1963. Click to enlarge

The system of traffic signs used in Britain after the Second World War was one that had been developed through years of tweaking and modifications, and had essentially evolved from the sign set introduced around the turn of the century. The War slowed this development (though one report on signing was produced at the height of the conflict in 1944), but as investment in transport picked up again, the system came under fire.

It was too old fashioned, the signs weren't noticeable enough, they were too wordy, and they gave prominence to route numbers, which at the time were prone to change from one year to the next, making many signs obsolete several times over.

The Ministry of Transport's response was to set up a new draft of the signing regulations that was intended to address these complaints, which was in many ways an implementation of the 1944 report. More symbols and pictograms were introduced, there was better use of colour on direction signs, and some information and restriction signs were altered to resemble the emerging conventions.

For example, speed limit signs now came with the numbers within the roundel rather than below it, and there was now a red circle with a white horizontal bar and the legend "NO ENTRY". In addition, some minor changes were made to the layout of direction signs and the details of the typeface.

An advert from May 1960 shows off some of the new symbols in the 1957 regulations. Click to enlarge

An advert from May 1960 shows off some of the new symbols in the 1957 regulations. Click to enlarge

However, the changes that were being made were not very drastic, and while the new regulations were still in draft form, the Ministry commissioned the Road Research Laboratory to set up some more wide-ranging experiments. Carried out in 1955, they examined some ideas that were outside the scope of the new draft, including the size and use of patches, the scaling of letters, and whether abbreviations could be used to allow larger letters without larger sign faces.

1950s standards included this unusual 40mph speed limit sign

1950s standards included this unusual 40mph speed limit sign

The results of these experiment showed that, if nothing else, the existing system failed to make good use of space on large road signs and that there was plenty of room for improvement. But the results could only ever feed into future changes. The draft regulations went through regardless, and Britain was stuck with the same set of signs for the foreseeable future.