Direction Signs – have we lost our way?

Direction signs are essential methods of communicating information to road users; why do we not take them seriously enough?

Note: The sign designs in this article are not part of any design contract, nor are they commissions for any third party organisation, no commercial confidences have been breached in presenting these drawings.

We have been repeatedly told that the new flexible TSRGD is not a design manual; the DfT are currently providing a new Chapter 7 of the Traffic Signs Manual to enable designers to be fully aware of how to use the new ‘elements’ based approach to sign design. Whilst I fully welcome this new development in signs design, I fear that we may already be too far down the wrong road where signing is concerned.

I should set my stall out here; I have always been interested in traffic sign design. As a youngster I would make my own direction signs on cardboard for use with my toy cars. I would design fictional road layouts on scrap paper during my spare time. After a somewhat unhappy period studying Law, seven years ago I got a foot-hold into the industry and have been tasked with, amongst other things, designing signs ever since. I hadn’t entered the industry through an academic route, I have used my enthusiasm and interest as a former layperson to gain experience.

In my own humble opinion, a fundamental weakness of the UK’s sign system is the fact that directional signing is left to the individual local authorities, meaning that there is often a lack of consistency across the country. This, some may argue, is less of a concern in an era of satellite navigation, but even so drivers look for confirmation that their machine is guiding them on the right path. Likewise, satellite navigation does not always help at complex junctions where different lane layouts can be encountered in a short distance. In these situations, time is precious, and as a driver I do not want to have the simultaneous distractions of a machine barking orders at me whilst I am also checking my mirrors, signalling, and attempting to read a traffic sign which may be obscured behind other traffic.

Another problem is the skills shortage where traffic sign design is concerned. It is not a ‘sexy’ part of highways engineering, to many it is merely an afterthought, something a general technician with an already heavy workload can worry about when the ‘big’ work is complete. It certainly is not perceived as a specialism warranting specific job roles purely to accommodate it, and for this I feel we are worse off. Practical realities of funding and ever reducing budgets of course make it somewhat idealistic to lament this, but there are clear advantages in taking sign design much more seriously than it is done at present.

One factor in why the importance of signs design has been viewed in a lesser capacity is undoubtedly the rise of computer aided design. To design a traffic sign today, you simply need a computer, one of the many sign design packages available, and a rudimentary grasp of the TSRGD. So far so good, but the critical issue here is that anyone can draw a sign; it takes a little more understanding to design a sign.

In December 2011, the BBC ran an article celebrating the humble traffic sign, and I was asked to pass comment; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-15990443. I mused that the success of traffic signs is that we don’t become distracted by them. Properly designed signs pass their information through to the road user without needing to undertake a deep analysis of what it is telling us. This vital benefit of direction signs is being lost due to the general lack of importance placed upon their design.

To understand where we are today, a brief history lesson is required.

In 1964, the first post-Worboys Report TSRGD laid out the general conventions for direction signs that remains with us today;

  • Motorways; blue backgrounds, white lettering and symbols.
  • Primary routes; green backgrounds, white lettering and symbols.
  • Non-primary routes; white backgrounds, black lettering and symbols.
  • “Local” destinations; white backgrounds, black lettering and symbols, but a thick blue border.
  • Military destinations: white backgrounds, black lettering, but red symbols and a thick red border.

This system remained in place until 1994; although in 1975 the thick border on local direction and military signs was replaced with a thin one to match other direction signs. Sign design guidance for all-purpose roads was from a document published in 1964, and this remained in place until Local Transport Note 1/94 was published, and later Traffic Signs Manual Chapter 7. Motorways, on the other hand, had no real guidance until Chapter 7 was published, other than the general principles of the 1962 Anderson Report.

The only route patching that would be used was where an all-purpose road intersected a motorway. This system relied entirely on the stroke-widths of the map type signs to distinguish if a road was primary or not, or indeed even classified.

In 1994, following experiments in Guildford, the current regime for signing was brought in. It is around here where understanding of direction sign design has started to unravel.

The Guildford Experiment was well received by road users. It is designers who have had issues.

In an unusual reversal of how things work, e.g. road users being baffled by the creation of engineers (I’m thinking in particular the Magic Roundabout in Swindon which is legendary as an idea where something works purely because everyone is terrified of it), the Guildford Experiment gave road users a much more obvious clue that they were able to select or reject a route based entirely on its status. Guildford is, if you pay close attention, a simple concept to apply. It falls down when a misunderstanding of how to apply the panels and patches the system requires occurs.

In my view, a key contributory factor has been the nature of the guidance; Chapter 7 is a very technical document for those who are not primarily interested in traffic sign design. It is not an attack on those technicians who are paid to produce drawings to very tight deadlines, but if the subject matter doesn’t particularly interest you, you’re going to create something that looks vaguely correct and submit that for approval rather than spend hours ensuring all of the stroke widths between blocks are correct and that the design is correct. This is especially common when traffic signs are designed in CAD packages, as you have to know the design rules to effectively use them. The GUI based SignPlot on the other hand does much of the work for you, but if you want to create a complex sign that requires numerous user inputs you still need to know the design rules.

The DfT were almost ready to throw in the towel themselves. In 2014, early consultation drafts of the TSRGD were suggesting abandoning Guildford, and going even further as to abandon stroke widths entirely for map type signs. This was touted as a means to ‘simplify sign design’ and ‘reduce costs’ (source: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/371570/response.pdf). The general public did not support the proposed change (54% to 46%), whereas local authorities did (70% to 30%). I rather suspect the magic word ‘cost’ drove that, as removing the crucial distinction of which road had priority flew in the face of road safety, and even in the face of de-cluttering as you’d need a warning sign to show which route enjoyed ‘right of way’. I recall the IHE being very vocal on this issue, thankfully.

However, once the delays and setbacks were overcome, the 2016 TSRGD has since come into law, and in doing so it has scrapped many of the diagrams previously prescribed for direction signs, meaning that more than ever it is essential to have prior signs design knowledge.

For instance, the example sign shown above would historically have required a site specific approval. Schedule 12, Part 28, Item 3 now allows designers to create lane allocation signs like this for the approaches to junctions where there are complicated lane arrangements. However, the diagram shown only suggests that a new lane forming on the offside may be used. You have to read the permitted variants to appreciate what you can really do.

Likewise, in order to reduce the reliance on expensive gantry signing, especially in areas where it would be visually intrusive, shared lane allocation signs are now properly prescribed for the first time as well. These signs have no diagram shown in the TSRGD, so the ordering of blocks and general layout will need to be covered by the future Chapter 7. However, cost aside, there are many situations where gantries are still the optimum solution for clarity and road safety, but may be cast aside as an option entirely by inexperienced sign designers who are pushed to reduce costs in the ‘lesser’ parts of a project.

In conclusion, the new TSRGD has barely been in place for a year. Many designers are still getting to grips with it (myself included), particularly with regard to the new schedule format, although if organisations are willing to promote continued development, such as ensuring those who work with signs on a regular basis can attain the IHE’s Sign Design Certificate or similar evidence of competence then some of the recent problems with traffic sign design can hopefully be resolved. If this can be done, then the upheaval of completely re-writing the TSRGD, and the associated guidance, should not have been in vain.

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4 thoughts on “Direction Signs – have we lost our way?

  1. I think it's more that the whole roads board has lost its way over the past century, on so many levels. Direction signage is just the latest casualty of that. My favourite canary-in-the-mineshaft for this is having to ‘undertake a deep analysis’ to decrypt whether e.g. 2 m on signs means metres, millions or imperial miles depending on how many stroke widths the space is!

    BTW; in London, where the streets are paved with gold and the highway authorities offices are carpeted with bundles of fifty quid notes, specialism for traffic signs is definitely still a thing! This doesn't necessarily result in better signs, though…

    But the main stimulus for my comment was your roundabout example which failed to follow the most important [unwritten] Guildford rule of all: never, never, NEVER put a cycle route on huge direction signs like this where motorists might see it and take offence at the very notion that anybody remotely cares about that enough to put it on a proper sign. Better to leave loads of blank space there and have a tiny 25 mm x-height cycle-specific fingerpost sited where it cannot possibly be seen from the carriageway, instead. 🙂

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    1. I’m reluctant to open the can of worms on metrication, save for the fact I have no objection to changing over.

      The outrage by the two papers which begin their titles with ‘Daily’ over the introduction of Dia. 530A (EU driven metrication by stealth!) sums up why we will be forever stuck with the erroneous ‘m’.

      The thing is, in the Anderson Report the first fork sign approaching a junction used the legend ‘1 mile’; it was the second that abbreviated it. No consistency even then…

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      1. I'm not convinced it really is a ‘can of worms’ but just the noisy whining from the tiny minority of rabid opponents—disproportionately many of whom are, for the time being, employed as top brass at DFT. Basically the same group who scream blue murder at any regulation on their motoring, e.g. speed limits. Interestingly, perhaps, their bark is often worse than their bite—the main insurgent group, ARM, will not daub paint over diagram 530A or any other dual signs now they are required by TSRGD! If you want some insight into where endless appeasement of these loonies leads, see the aftermath of the referendum to leave the EU.

        After the Anderson report, the first experiments with Motorway Signals apparently had the legend ‘1½‍ ‍m’ in the bottom [13×11?] matrix. Good luck squeezing the full word ‘million’ in there! 😉

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