Today Google paid tribute to 150 Years of the London Underground with a doodle of the infamous underground map. The map and the branding of the underground are British institutions. Classics of design that tell a story of the development of our visual culture.
In his role as publicity officer of the Underground Electric Railways Company, Frank Pick with Albert Stanley rebranded the UERL as the ‘UNDERGROUND’ to position the tube as the most modern and efficient way to get around the capital. In 1916 a typeface was designed by calligrapher Edward Johnston. Pick commissioned him to create “the bold simplicity of the authentic lettering of the finest periods” while “belonging unmistakably to the 20th century”. (What a fantastic brief!)
Johnston Sans was created to be both beautiful and practical. A font legible enough for quick absorption by fast moving passengers, yet so distinctive that a variation is still used today. This was then combined with the unforgettable circle and bar symbol.
In a time when modern corporate identity was in its infancy compared to todays brand culture, Frank Pick showed great insight. He knew that carrying the identity across all posters and collateral was vitally important to create the strength of image needed for the Underground to become the choice mode of transport in London. He also was wise enough to ensure the signage was consistent on all platforms. This simple visual system helped avoid any confusion for passengers. Among the many brilliant poster designers Pick commissioned were Edward Mcknight Kauffer, Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy.
The Underground Map 1908
Harry Beck’s 1933 Underground Map
Pick was constantly revising the map, commissioning draftsmen to cram the complex geographical detail onto a small size map. Unexpectedly, his appointment of Harry Beck was to solve this. In the 1930’s Beck created a new form of map design that is now celebrated as a masterpiece of graphic design and emulated all over the world. Amazingly Harry Beck wasn’t even a graphic designer, he was an electrical draughtsman, employed on a temporary basis. However, in his own spare time, he painstakingly refined the whole idea of the map down to it’s primary purpose – to help passengers see which tube lines go where. Using his experience of creating circuitry diagrams, he removed unnecessary geographical accuracy to produce a system of straight lines with a simple colour palette corresponding to each underground line.
2013 Map / Branding
It might not have the simplicity of Beck’s maps, no doubt due to the addition of new tube lines over the years. The system is still in place though, as is a modern derivative of initial logo. Evidence of the brilliance of great graphic design and brand identity.