The late British designer and typographer Jock Kinneir and his former student Margaret Calvert revolutionized the visual language of the UK’s transport system into a format that remains to this day.
Their work has left a vast legacy on theUK’s design landscape, which began with the creation of the signage at London’s Gatwick Airport in the late 1950’s, later with the production of a baggage handling system for the P&O Line shipping company, after which they were employed to design wayfinding for Britain’s burgeoning network of motorways— a typographic system and graphic standard has inspired transport signage the world over.
Although a substantial body of work in its own right, little else is known about Kinneir’s prolific career, which included over a decade of teaching at The Royal College of Art, and a great deal of international speaking engagements. To address this wide gap in his story, Kinneir’s youngest granddaughter, Anna, and her older brother Simon have embarked upon a project to fill in his missing history while they’re still able to wrangle his peers, founding the Jock Kinneir Library to house an archive of anecdotes and ephemera dedicated to their family legacy, and extend Jock’s teaching to an international audience of design practitioners and students.
“Why are we doing it now? Because there’s a generation above us who were influenced and educated by, and worked with Jock, who aren’t going to be around for much longer. They have the memories, the stories, the artefacts, tucked away, and we want to make sure that we are getting the information from those people before it’s too late,” says Anna.
“I believe that your inheritance is your story—your family, your blood, your DNA. It is a key part of how and where you are now. Some people choose to ignore or even rebel against this but others embrace it and say “I am this way because of my forefathers.”
Both Anna and Simon have followed in their grandfather’s footsteps, choosing careers in the design industry as a co-director of a maker space and product designer respectively. Which would explain their particular interest in Jock’s story, were it not for the fact that most of their relatives have also chosen similar paths. With so many aunts, uncles, and cousins working as designers, how did they choose who would take charge of the library?
“Last year Simon and I were in a period of reflection while travelling in Rarotonga—where our maternal family has ties—and we came up with the mission for the library,” says Anna. “We just felt that Jock’s centenary should be a moment to mark, and that we needed to get it going now; as did our close family. We work very well together, so now we’re rolling with it, and we’ve set ourselves until May 21st (100 days from Jock’s centenary) to get as much content and relevant interviews up and running. It’s a daunting prospect because both of us are simultaneously continuing our own business lives.”
According to his grandchildren, Jock Kinneir was intensely private, which has made compiling information about him a challenge. “I do remember him as a very stoic, quiet man, who kind of kept himself to himself,” says Anna. “Growing up I remember driving in our cream VW Camper van to their house in a tiny hamlet, and having to sit down quietly and do a drawing of a wrench, or all read together. I felt like he had an impact on me in a very serious way, although whenever I hear Take Five by Dave Brubeck I’m instantly back in that house.”
“Jock passed when I was ten,” says Simon. “He was the quieter of our grandparents. They lived in a wonderful house he designed and built in the Oxfordshire countryside, with a tall pitched living room, and usually a young cousin practicing piano upstairs. He was always wearing his black and white Norwegian jumper and corduroys. Looking back the house had a Scandinavian simplicity about it; his studio had pine-panelled walls, a drawing board, and an electric typewriter with reams of ‘continuous stationery’ paper. When we stayed, it would have had five camp beds made up as well, the posters he painted for Shell in his early 20’s on the wall looming over us.”
As well as hunting for personal stories, the purpose of the library is to preserve Kinneir’s revered design philosophy for a new generation, and to inspire today’s creative community to embrace the role of community in design practice.
“He was renowned for his clarity of mind,” says Simon. “His approach, with Margaret, was able to bring clarity to projects of such a scale as the road signs. But as well as with clients and collaborators, he went on to share his thoughts with young students.
“I am keen this project unearths both a portrait of him as a mentor, and also the lessons he tried to pass on, so that these are not lost. He did not teach in a period of digital archiving so we need to work fast to try and capture what we can to continue to disseminate his design rationale, and inspire a generation of designers to foster people-centered solutions.”