London Underground: A Classic Brand Identity

London Underground Logo

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.

Frank Pick

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 Font, 1916

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.

London Underground original logo sketch

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.

Frank Pick commissioned London Underground Posters

 


The Underground Map 1908

1932 London Underground Map

Harry Beck’s 1933 Underground Map

Harry Henry Beck London 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.

 

london underground logo system

2013 London Underground Map Design

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.


Further Reading

History of the roundel

Frank Pick Biography

PDF of latest Map

Harry Beck: The Paris Connection

How To Ruin A Design Classic

László Moholy-Nagy

The London Underground (The London Hut)