Going underground


400 miles of track (only 150 of which are actually underground), 180 million passengers a year and one 300 foot moving walkway  in engineering terms alone, the London Underground system is a staggering achievement.

However, the role the network has played in the evolution of graphic design is often, quite unfairly, overlooked. The system may have become synonymous with inefficiency and financial mismanagement in recent years, but that will never detract from the stunning typography and exceptional imagery now recognised the world over.

The red, white and blue roundel symbol, which not only adorns each and every station but all the capital's bus stops, was introduced in 1908. Originally, the logo's centre was a solid red globe and the font a tall upper case, but in 1916 London Transport's publicity director, Frank Pick, commissioned typographer Edward Johnston to develop a super-legible typeface for use throughout the Underground  Johnston Sans.  Then, in 1918 the roundel was re-imagined and the branding those passengers still see every day was established.

Of course, the early service was relatively straightforward, and passenger maps were something of an afterthought. But by the early 1930s, the underground network had expanded to such an extent it had become very difficult to incorporate the new lines and stations into a literal, geographical map. Passengers were complaining the existing plan was complex, confusing and less than useful. So, Harry Beck, who was working for London Underground as a draughtsman, was briefed to create a diagrammatic representation of the lines.

Inspired by electrical circuits (obvious once you know), Beck depicted each line in a different colour and interchange stations as diamonds. The now packed central area was enlarged for clarity and the course of each route was simplified using only vertical, horizontal or diagonal lines. Perhaps surprisingly, this new plan debuted as a trial on a single 1933 leaflet. But Beck refined the design and it was quickly adopted as the standard map. Harry's work continued and the diagram's ideal format wasn't made final until 1959. With some obvious additions, this was the iconic guide we still use today.

This majestic archetype of minimalist design has inspired the maps of underground networks from New York to Sydney, but any poor soul attempting to navigate the Big Apple's baffling subway will soon realise just how difficult it is to match Harry Beck's skill and success. His work is quite rightly recognised as a masterpiece of civic, graphic art.

Art and public transport have long gone hand in hand in London. One of the first artists to design for the Underground was the American painter Edward McKnight Kauffer who was commissioned by Pick in 1915, a year after Kauffer's arrival in London. Obsessed by cubism, Kauffer introduced many elements of the emerging modern art movement to his posters in a bold, but fluid style. An exceptionally beautiful poster was also created by the US surrealist Man Ray in 1938, when he juxtaposed the roundel against an image of a planet in the night sky.

The 1930s really were the golden years for design on the Underground and Frank Pick was the inspiration. An astute businessman, Pick was also passionate about the visual arts and genuinely believed a company like London Transport should be inspiring and educating its customers and citizens. Happily, he was as ambitious and adventurous as he was responsible and the people he chose to create the network's posters were many of the best known artists of the time, including Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash. He even staged exhibitions in the booking office at Charing Cross Station - something today's authorities may like to consider repeating.

The entire history of artistic commissions for the London Underground system is a fascinating one, but would take up rather more space than we have available here. And we haven't even touched on the architectural innovations introduced to enhance the Tube's stations over the decades.

Perhaps, there's no need. London's public transport service can be frustrating, grubby, hot, crowded and intimidating at times. But it is also chock full of some of the most admired, recognised, memorable and intelligent commercial design we will ever know. And just because we now take it for granted, we should never forget the towering abilities of Frank Pick, Edward Johnston and Harry Beck. And perhaps, now and again, we can draw inspiration from their vision, understanding and talent.

Mind the gap.

Magnus Shaw - copywriter and blogger.



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