Signage in the Barbican Estate

Chamberlin Powell and Bon, the architects, took many different steps to unify the Barbican development. One example is their use of the U-shape in many different places and contexts.

They wanted the signage on the estate to be unique and recognisable. They did not want to use any of the available fonts and they did not want to risk a mish-mash of signs in different fonts. So, they turned to a man who had already formed a reputation for creating unique fonts in a Modernist tradition – Herbert Spencer.

Spencer taught typography at the Central School of Arts and Crafts from 1949 to 1955, and later became a professor of graphic arts the Royal College of Art.  He founded a design and visual arts journal called ‘Typographica’. He was the leading force behind the Ministry of Transport setting up a committee to devise a consistent system of signage for British road signs. (He had produced a photographic book of British road signs showing how chaotic they were.) He wrote an influential book ‘Pioneers of Modern Typography’ which is still an important reference work for designers. 

Herbert Spencer created a new distinctive alphabet and ‘vocabulary’ of letter sizes, symbols and layout for the Barbican, and this resource was then used for all the building names and other signs throughout the estate.

Spencer also designed Chamberlin Powell and Bon’s stylish book containing their April 1959 report to the City Corporation on the Barbican development.

An iconic sign in the Barbican is the ‘BBBB’ sign. This was the work of the graphic artist, Ken Briggs. There is one on the wall of the Barbican Centre facing onto the wide podium area between Shakespeare Tower and Defoe House. There is another on the wall next to the Conservatory facing Cromwell Tower. Ken Briggs was a student of Herbert Spencer’s at the Central School of Arts & Crafts in London. As a graphic designer he became best known for designing many of the posters and programmes of The National Theatre during the 1960s.