me stuff

her majesty’s dark green (originally posted in ‘me news’ on the 17th of january ’10)

the green cover shown (above right) belongs to a british ‘highway code manual’ dating back to 1970 which i have had in the bookcase for years, it represents a certain period in the history of graphic design and the advent of a form of modernism in british design that had been steadfastly avoided by pretty much all areas of design in the UK untill that point, this in stark contrast to the surrounding countries such as holland and germany whose golden age of modernism was by that point already so ingrained in their cultures that it was a given

the (then) brand new national roadway signage system by ‘jock kinneir’ had just been introduced (see earlier post in ‘me stuff’ from 2007) and it’s characteristic dark green, white and blue colour scheme serves as a basis for the cover design, i recently discovered a previous issue of the same publication dating back to 1961, displayed in full on the wonderful ‘things magazine’ site

the two publications laid side by side show some interesting developments in design technique but to my mind, perhaps also reveal certain cultural traits albeit unintentionally, both books were published by ‘her majesty’s stationary office’ (HMSO) and were intended to be a formal, no frills instruction manual for the correct use of ‘her majesty’s roads’, but compared together they also clearly show an evolution in design, fashion, automotive, typography and printing technology between those nine years… whereas the first one still displays some of the ‘homely’ naivety of the late fifties with kids sat on fences and young men in open-top sports cars etc. the second has a certain serious, more business like tone of voice to it, to me they represent and nicely illustrate the end of one era and the birth of the following one

the first thing that i note is that the former version relies entirely on pen illustrations (in very typical style of that era, reminiscent to my mind of walt disney’s ‘101 dalmations’ film released in that same year) to show the various forms of information from graphic road signs to anecdotal illustrations describing the various situations a driver nedds to understand, both the ’61 & ’70 versions are produced in a set of 5 spot colours for the 1961 version this is black and four very ‘fifties’ looking and rather washed out pastel tints of red, green, blue and yellow, to me they look hopelessly nostalgic but perhaps at the time they were impossibly modern, who knows? by the time the book was remade in 1970 these colours made way for a set of harsher and more business like tints, the signal function of red used very modestly before now also became much more prominent as does the ‘corporate’ dark green; whereas the graphic styles, clearly influenced by new technology in plate separation and printing, had become more diverse and adventurous, boasting a mix of line illustration, icons, bold use of colour bars, even photography and scale models were now put to good use for the various levels of information and the whole was printed with relatively complex transparent colour separations and overlays

the typography, previously a mix of such british stalwarts as ‘gill’ and ‘times roman’ mixed in with a modest amount of various condensed grotesque sans serifs made way for the more modern and very sixties sans serifs such as ‘helvetica’ and bold display fonts like ‘frutiger condensed’, the format remained unchanged although the stock quality appears to have been upgraded by 1970 (judging from the available images and my paper copy alone)

some of the details in the images provide a fascinating insight into the culture of the time: for example, whereas in the ’61 version shown here below the illustrator allows himself the luxury of combining the necessary infographic information with more ‘informal’ and almost decorative elements (such as the happy family waiting for dad on the wall, the ‘crazy paving’ on the garden path) it is quite a detailed depiction of the street scene and the cars (the whole book is full of open top bentleys, rolls royces and american exotic cars like the ford consul with ‘fin tails’ and chrome hub caps)

in the 1970 version a similar scene is reduced down to more factual information, the scene is now devoid of humans, our viewpoint is now higher and more graphic than pictorial, the streets have become a more spartan affair and the scale model has been photographed in black and white with colour overlays added to show the relevant areas for the reader, the cars have now made way for more contemporary ones like the ‘austin 1300’ (shown here above), at the time a modern wonder and a source of great pride for motorists? the scene has somehow lost it’s innocence and charm, perhaps in much the same way that society was moving away from the post-war comfort and great britain was facing a more outward-looking perpective, the economy became global, america was at war in vietnam and society began to emancipate and diversify rapidly

having said all that i still really love the technique used on the scale model images with black and white photos and semi-opaque spot colour overlays, the crude masks and hand-cut separation shapes have a lo-tech naivety to them that for me always hold a lot of charm, interesting to note that a similar yet much complexer and certainly much more sophisticated mix of techniques had been used many many years before in such publications as for example the legendary ‘het boek van ptt’ from dutch modernist pioneer ‘piet zwart’ back in the mid 1930’s

i recently sent a complete set of scans of my 1970 version to the editor of ‘things’ magazine (jonathan bell) who has uploaded them on his website so that you can see & compare both versions 1961 here and (albeit incorrectly dated) 1970 here (many thanks to jonathan for allowing me to use his images for this piece too)

what still remains a mystery to me is why the braking distance chart on the back cover suddenly reversed direction facing upwards, was there a specific reason for this other than chance? and what was it? and does anybody even care, except me? probably not…

update (february 8th ’10): i have recently found an even earlier version of this book: posted on a UK blog here and dating this time from 1954…

m / 17-01-2010 13:36

1 comment

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