Watch road painters at work in a new film from design studio O Street

A new film from Glasgow design studio O Street and production company Pretend Lovers documents the fascinating craft of roadlining – painting traffic instructions on roads using molten plastic and a steady hand

Roadliners documents a day in the life of Tommy “Tam” Lilley, who has been painting letters on Scotland’s roads for 18 years. The five-minute film offers a rare chance to see his fascinating process up close: grids are marked out in chalk and hot thermoplastic mixed with glass beads is poured into a square mould, then dragged across the ground by hand to create each letter. Letters are effectively drawn freehand, meaning no two are the same, though they all look roughly similar.

Lilley says he learned the craft by observing other roadliners and practising until he was confident enough to do it alone. “I see my work everywhere I go,” he says, adding: “There’s a pride involved in it, doing something that everybody’s going to use.”

O Street decided to create a film about the process after commissioning Tam and his colleagues to create a bespoke font for the studio. The font – which includes a full alphabet, punctuation marks and alternative characters – now appears on O Street’s website, stationery and communications as part of a new visual identity.

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Still from Roadliners, by Pretend Lovers & O Street
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Still from Roadliners, by Pretend Lovers & O Street

David Freer, who founded O Street in 2007 with Neil Wallace, first saw roadliners at work a few years ago and took some videos of the process on his phone. “I remember thinking, ‘this is amazing.’ I stood there watching them for half an hour, just mesmerised,” he adds. 

When the studio decided to rebrand last year, Freer was reminded of the roadliners’ lettering and thought it would be a perfect fit for the studio’s new branding.

“So many design studios are being rebranded at the moment and we wanted something that was unique to us,” he says. “We have ‘street’ in our name, so the idea of using lettering that’s painted on roads seemed like a natural fit. I also really liked how you can feel the human touch behind it, and it’s not too clinical.”

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Still from Roadliners, by Pretend Lovers & O Street
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Still from Roadliners, by Pretend Lovers & O Street
Tracking down roadliners was a challenge as teams are subcontracted by the council, but Freer eventually got through to someone at a trade association in Birmingham, who asked him to leave his mobile number. It was three months before he received a call from a roadliner – in the meantime, the studio had created a makeshift font by painting smaller letters by hand in a similar style. 

The roadliners agreed to paint an alphabet plus a full set of numerals and punctuation for O Street. Characters were painted on a disused patch of land outside Glasgow and photographed from above using a drone by Borja Alcalde from Scottish company WavLab. 

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O Street’s new website, which features a bespoke font created by a team of roadliners

O Street then digitised the typeface, leaving in certain imperfections and quirks but cleaning up letters to ensure they would be legible at small sizes. Letters on business cards and stationery were printed using thermographic printing, creating a textured, dappled effect much like the lettering on roads. (The effect was created using lighter ink colours, which are usually best avoided in thermographic printing as there is less ink for powder to stick to, meaning letters appear slightly patchy). Freer says O Street is also keen to have letters painted outside the studio, but has yet to receive permission from the council.

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O Street’s custom alphabet
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Website and stationery using the roadliner font. The website was built by Dan Branigan (Branigan Interactive)
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Stationery was printed using thermography, creating a dappled and raised effect similar to lettering on roads

We first featured roadlining on the CR blog back in 2014, when designer Tom Williams posted a video of roadliners painting the words ‘bus stop’ on a road outside his house at night. Pretend Lovers (Ross Gillespie and Gabrielle Ginns) and O Street’s film documents the rarely seen process in great detail, showing everything from the texture of thermoplastic when mixed to the slow and steady act of painting out letters. Freer says he wanted to pay homage to “the uncelebrated typographers of the road” and the film is a lovely tribute to Tam and his team.

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Stills from Roadliners, by O Street and Pretend Lovers
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Stills from Roadliners, by O Street and Pretend Lovers

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