There’s a museum for almost every interest: there’s the Spam Museum, the Hobo Museum, the Conspiracy Theory Museum, and of course the famous Mütter Museum of medical oddities. You can’t make this stuff up. But did you know there is also a design museum? Granted, there are several design museums around the world but being the Anglophile that I am, (it’s not a bad thing) the one I visited several years ago is the Design Museum, London. Currently located on the banks of the Thames, it houses a collection of over 2,000 objects ranging from early Modernism of the 1900s to cutting edge contemporary design. Anyone in an art-related field who finds themselves in London with a few hours to spare will want to visit this exciting and inspiring place.
The museum just opened a new exhibit called This is Design, now on view through 22 January 2012, which features highlights from the museum’s collection and includes the Anglepoise Lamp, Apple iMac and Britain’s famous red telephone box. Each item in the exhibit, which brings together such diverse disciplines as architecture, couture, product design and identity, demonstrates an aspect of the design process and shows how design influences contemporary culture.
One object of note in the exhibit is the UK road sign. These signs are an excellent example of the now-specialized field of information design (ID). The state of the country’s road signage in the 1950s was so abysmal and confusing that the government appointed a special committee to solve the problem. To quote Design Museum’s excellent web article on the subject,
“The government of the day took the unusual step of entrusting the development of the new system to the typographer and graphic designer Jock Kinneir (1917-1974) and his assistant Margaret Calvert (1936-). They devised a rigorous signage system of carefully coordinated lettering, colours, shapes and symbols for Britain’s new motorways. Efficient and elegant, their system was one of the most ambitious information design projects ever undertaken in Britain. It became a role model for modern road signage all over the world and is still used today.”
It was interesting to read that their objective was to produce signs that could be easily read and understood at high speed and that they developed a new typeface for the project, based in Akzidenz Grotesk. They created a heavy and medium weight typeface for different applications to compensate for the illusion that makes identical black letters on white backgrounds appear thinner than white letters on black backgrounds. Below is an example I did using Akzidenz Grotesk that illustrates the phenomenon. All graphic designers should have a broad knowledge of typographic principles such as this.
The exhibit at Design Museum is worth visiting, or, short of that, doing some independent research about an object in the show that interests you. You may find something interesting that will help you with your next project.
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