Warning: Ageism – Can age be represented better?

Ever since its launch in 1981, the ‘warning, elderly people’ road sign has been the focus of complaints and controversy. Design studio NB and the Spring Chicken website challenged the creative community to come up with a better message

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A selection of submissions to the Sign of the Times project by (top row): Vince Frost; James Henderson, Brilliant Path; The Chase; (middle row): Johnny Kelly; Mark Bonner, GBH; Twelve; (bottom row): Phil Carter; Anthony Smith; Rob Howsam, Purpose

In 1981, the UK’s Department of Transport introduced a new road sign. The winner of a competition for schoolchildren, it was meant to warn drivers of the presence of ‘elderly people’, acting as a counterpart to Margaret Calvert’s classic ‘children crossing’ sign from 1964. But its stooped, frail depiction of an older couple has proved consistently controversial.

In 2003, following a campaign led by Age Concern and Help The Aged (now combined as Age UK) the words ‘Elderly People’ under the sign were removed. Concerns remained, however, and in 2008, Help the Aged led another campaign to change the sign’s design or, failing that, remove it altogether. “The sign portrays a small proportion of the older generation,” senior policy officer Lizzy McLennan told the Daily Mail at the time. “They are assuming everyone who is old looks like that, and they don’t.” The furore resurfaced in 2014 when the Government’s Older Workers Champion Ros Altmann repeated earlier claims that the sign was damaging to the image of older people. “[It] perpetuates a damaging stereotype that deters employers from recruiting job seekers over the age of 50 and assists in continuing a false perception of older people,” she has said.

In order to see whether it was possible to come up with a more appropriate message, Anna Chapman of online retailer for older people Spring Chicken (see p58), design studio NB and designer Michael Wolff issued a challenge to designers and illustrators to come up with an alternative design.

Called Sign of the Times, it works, in part, as branding for Spring Chicken, linking to its positioning of “making life easier and better for the older adult”, as NB’s Alan Dye explains. But the wider intent is to “to raise awareness about how [they are] treated by the media, government and society”.

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Tony Brook; Milton Glaser; Ivan Chermayeff; (middle row): Alan Kitching; Magpie; Paul Davis; (bottom row): Margaret Calvert and Marion Deuchars; Together Design; David Hillman

As tends to be the case with exercises such as this, the results are decidedly mixed. Although the project has pulled in responses from some of the best-known names in design – from Milton Glaser to Margaret Calvert herself – very few took on the serious challenge of producing a viable alternative design. As Wolff says, the project “was an invitation to wit, really, and that’s what we’ve got … it’s produced a lot of very self-indulgent bits of design and very few that would do the job, but that’s fine”, because the point is to get all of us, including designers, to start thinking about the needs of older people. “What we wanted to do was start a conversation about how we’ve got to change our mindset around what ageing is,” Chapman says.

In fact, all involved think that the ideal solution would not be to replace the current sign with a new one, but to do away with it altogether. Effective speed controls are surely a better way of protecting all vulnerable people, of whatever age. While the introduction of crossings with digital countdown displays that tell users how long they have to get over the road also improve safety.

As to the wider issue, Dye believes that the key will be “a series of small steps towards changing the cultural stereotypes, and combating the issue of ageism in general. The more awareness and support there is for an issue like this, the more businesses and governments will be forced to act.”

Ever since its launch in 1981, the 'warning, elderly people' road sign has been the focus of complaints and controversy
Ever since its launch in 1981, the ‘warning, elderly people’ road sign has been the focus of complaints and controversy

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