In 1965 the British Road Sign project was launched, introducing Great Britain to a multitude of new road signs as well as two ubiquitous two new typefaces (Transport and Motorway), all of which were designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert, who basically invented modern road signage in the same act. It doesn’t matter if you live in the U.K. or the U.S. or the European continent—if you’ve been in a car, you’ve seen their two-dimensional pantomimes (example).
2015 being the 50th anniversary of the British Road Sign, this summer the MADE NORTH Gallery celebrated the design landmarks with a project in which they invited “leading British artists and designers to transform the familiar circle, triangle and square signs.” The participants were encouraged to “create their own content for the signs developing concepts that evolve from current signs function of instructing people of speed limits and directions to poetically disrupting our everyday with designs that makes us stop, look and think about design and our environment in a slightly different way; less instructions and more pauses for thought.”
J.G. Ballard behind the wheel of a 1904 Renault Park Phaeton, 1971
Possibly the most intriguing entry came from the well-known British designer Jonathan Barnbrook, whose past projects include the album art for David Bowie’s 2002 album Heathen as well as his 2013 release The Next Day; he also collaborated with Damien Hirst on his restaurant Pharmacy. Barnbrook crated two “anti-signs,” if you will, signs that could never serve any proper public service but whose very inutility prompts the viewer to engage with them in a more conceptual, artistic way. More interestingly, Barnbrook’s two signs incorporate lengthy quotations from the patron saint of automobile crashes, J.G. Ballard, the one man on earth who might fairly be said to disagree with the need for traffic signs to prevent fatal accidents.
Both signs are essentially illegible in the usual sense, and simply offer up a perverse Ballard sentiment about cars in forbidding combinations of red, white, and black. The first features a sentence from Ballard’s interview in Penthouse, which appeared in the magazine in the September 1970 issue (incidentally, three years before the publication of Ballard’s magnum opus on automobile accidents, Crash, but the same year as Ballard’s thematically similar multi-media work The Atrocity Exhibition).
For the record, the full line is “A car crash harnesses elements of eroticism, aggression, desire, speed, drama, kinesthetic factors, the stylizing of motion, consumer goods, status—all in one event.” You can read Ballard’s full Penthouse interview here.
Barnbrook’s second sign appropriates a comment about the eventual demise of cars (one that has proven to be not very prophetic at all) that comes from an essay Ballard wrote for the Autumn 1971 issue of Drive called “The Car, the Future”:
This sign is far more cluttered, with too much text really. The quotation reads as follows: “The car as we know it is on the way out. To a large extent, I deplore its passing, for as a basically old-fashioned machine, it enshrines a basically old-fashioned machine, it enshrines a basically old-fashioned idea: freedom. In terms of pollution, noise and human life, the price of that freedom may be high, but perhaps the car, by the very muddle and confusion it causes, may be holding back the remorseless spread of the regimented, electronic society.” You can read the full essay “The Car, the Future” here.
After the jump, director Harley Cokeliss’ 17-minute meditation on Ballard’s “Crash” thematic, featuring an appearance by Ballard himself…