The making of a Coca-Cola neon sign, 1954

One of the highlights of the Design Museum’s show on the125 years of Coca-Cola is a book documenting the design and build of their first neon sign for Piccadilly Circus, in 1954

In the new issue of CR, I talk to Coca-Cola archivist, Ted Ryan, about the history of the brand’s 125 year-old identity, explored in a new show at the Design Museum. One of the highlights of the display is a book documenting the design and build of their first neon sign for Piccadilly Circus, in 1954…

When he returned to Atlanta, Ryan kindly sourced some scans of some of the pages from this rare publication, a few of which we used in the print piece in the July issue. The rest we present here as a series, alongside two Technical Data pages, should anyone be interested in how the sign was actually constructed.

The opening page of the book reads as follows: “Outdoor Publicity Limited are pleased to present this volume to The Coca-Cola Export Corporation to record the lighting of the Piccadilly Sign in London on July 1st, 1954”. Then the design credits are: “Designed by the Advertising Department of The Coca-Cola Company, in Atlanta, U.S.A., and constructed by Claude-General Neon Lights Ltd in their factory at Wembley, Middlesex”.

Ryan looks after the physical Coca-Cola archives at the Atlanta HQ, which can be toured (virtually) via The July issue of CR features a range of work from the archives, including some examples of early tie-ins with baseball stars from 1907; one of the first print advertisements to feature an African-American woman from 1955; and several pages of the Coca-Cola design manuals used in the 1960s.

The July issue will be up online very soon (for subscriber access) but you can also take advantage of a 40% subscription here, for this weekend only, as part of our deal celebrating reaching 400k followers on Twitter.

One of the first images in the book replicates the drawn plan for the neon sign:

The manufacture of the sign is also recorded – here, spray-painting the letters:

The sign begins to take shape on Piccadilly Circus:

The final image in the book, the only one in colour, shows the sign lit-up:

Finally, here are two scans from the Technical Data pages:

Thanks again to Ted Ryan for sending the images our way. You can see the Design Museum‘s Coca-Cola exhibition, in the tank display on Shad Thames, London SE1 2YD, until July 3.


CR in Print

Thanks for reading the CR Blog but, if you’re not also getting the printed magazine, we think you are missing out. This month’s bumper July issue contains 60 pages of great images in our Illustration Annual plus features on Chris Milk, Friends With You and the Coca-Cola archive.

If you would like to buy this issue and are based in the UK, you can search for your nearest stockist here. Based outside the UK? Simply call +44(0)207 292 3703 to find your nearest stockist. Better yet, subscribe to CR for a year here and save yourself almost 30% on the printed magazine and get Monograph.

  • Amazing stuff, especially the guy drafting it up.. Makes me thankful for my Mac!

  • Thanks for posting this! I moved to London in 2010. I’m fascinated by how Piccadilly Circle looked in the 50s!

  • I wonder what was the price then?

  • This is great. Love history. Thanks.

  • This is incredible. Seeing the hand-made process from beginning to end, would love to get my hands on that book

  • Nice to see old school sign making… James, yes what we can do now in meter of hours it used to take days to draft and design by hand.

  • I have always loved Coca-Cola. I used to have their card collectibles and there were vintage ads like this. I saw a nice comparison of Coca-Cola VS. Pepsi brand logos and I found out that Pepsi have changed their logo for a number of times while Coca-Cola only had one. Its impressive to know how long they have kept their brand promise.

  • This is incredible. I watched a documentary not to long ago about the workers who still hand paint massive bilboards in New York. Makes me thankful for modern tech but it is a shame we don’t get as hands on any more.

    This is fantastic work though, I wonder what the price of something like this was…

  • I have always loved the look of old Coca-Cola neon signs, it is great to see the history behind it.

    It’s such a massive shame that such amazing things like this are being replaced with the same old huge LED screens/boring motion graphics combination :(
    Over sized video billboards are so charisma-free in comparison, I can get the same affect by pressing my nose against my TV at home!

    There’s simply no substitute for a good old fashioned neon sign, and with today’s fancy pants modern materials (RGB EL sheets, neon string etc etc) we should theoretically be in some kind golden age of amazing advertising hoardings.

  • Fantastic blog. I appreciate for your job.

  • This is an excellent post, many thanks. I could look at stuff like this all day. Good work CR!

  • Serge Matviyets

    brilliant! such designs and many are not available now!

  • signcentral

    Fascinating! Even using todays techniques and materials that would be a big job. Folded lead coated steel letters! Great insight.

  • @Peter yeah was wondering the same thing! must have cost a fortune! but pretty amazing stuff

  • Jon

    Great, story about the history of sign making,

  • You know, I think it’s a beautiful work that still holds up great.

  • Fascinating article. Thanks.

  • SUch an iconic image, strange to think there was a time it wasn’t there!

  • Loving the craft that went into making it. Great article.

  • Loving the craft that went into making it. Great article.

  • this is simply terrific! very very good.

  • rich k

    An iconic sign with craftsmanship in the execution that makes me stop and consider the skills that used to be required for our jobs. I agree with James, thank god for my Mac. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the need for imagination, vision, and perseverance. I’ll try not to complain the next time it takes over an hour to execute a project that would have taken a week and several people just 30 years ago. I do think I’ll dig through the closet later for my Koh-I-Noors.

    Is it still lit with neon? The signage in Times Square has been seeing a slow but steady change-over (I won’t say upgrade) to LED and other light sources.

  • TheHippopotamus

    I guess this makes me a nerd, but pen and paper drafting always gets me excited! Beautiful stuff!

  • Glad we use Macs now!

  • Where did you find all those pictures? It’s world history :) I should get one of those sign for my office (LOL) 😉

  • A lovely piece of hand-made design!

    Thanks for sharing, CR!

  • Extraordinary! It’s wonderful that some companies actually take the time to archive these magnificent objects. Thanks for sharing with us.

  • That is quite spectacular, I think it’s rather amusing to watch those old fashion Coca Cola-signs. Hoping to see more of those in the furure, they look so genuine and beatiful – just like an advertising should look.

  • Ed Logsdon

    The drafting is an art in itself. Anyone who has drawn by hand and on a computer may admit, by hand is more organic or real. You are drawing the lines (or erasing them). Lead pencil on paper was one level of drafting, ink and mylar was the next step up. Note all the guide lines that were used to keep the characters a consistent shape and at the same angle. Now I am showing my age 😉

  • Oscar Cujar

    Do you mean line weight, lettering guides, eraser shields and such? That was an art form on it self. Sure, Mac’s make everything easier but not simple. The concepts remain the same. Great reading.

  • If I were lucky enough to live at those times when the signs was that beautiful and genuine – I would really “listen” and “see” the adverts in a whole different way. Today, It’s all about who shouts the loudest – it’s just not the same. Good ol’ times!

  • Giyani Mutakati

    thank you this is a great article.

  • Dean Hecker

    Classic… Would love to go back to 1950’s and look around for the day.. Thanks for sharing..


    More, More, More. Please

  • Now the design world is saturated with impacts that will not let us appreciate the true beauty of things. Over time we can take enough perspective to capture the details. Thanks for a very comprehensive article.

  • I disagree with James, I would love to see design be like that still. The mac and the Adobe program’s are great tools, but they have taken away some craftsmanship from the graphic design field.

  • That is a fantastic piece of history. Quite spectacular actually – I think it’s rather amusing to watch those old fashion Coca Cola-signs. Hoping to see more of those in the furure, they look so genuine and beatiful – just like an advertising should look.

  • Is fantastic, the design museum, I post in my web some photos of museum:

  • I just love Coca Cola so reading this article was really amusing for me, Coca Cola’s history is really fascinating.

  • I didnt know this much about the big coke-company. I just love the way that this kind of things can be an intresting part of history.
    Best regards //

  • Nice story. I really love Coca Cola.

    Best regards, Sommardäck

  • The Coca Cola sign has got to be the most known around the world. Thanks for the images this was when marketing really had an effect on the mass…. i guess Coca Cola increased the value of advertising in London.

  • Ben

    It’s fun to take a peek back at the Coke brand. I remember travelling in Mexico a few years back. Coca-Cola is quite popular along the Riviera so you see lots of locals and tourists enjoying a bottle. And yes, bottle are used, recycle the reused again. Natural sugar is in the recipe down there so the flavor has a little different taste. I actually loved it.

  • I was just watching american pickers on history about coke signs and those who collect them. This is one of the neatest ones I’ve seen. I’ve got a pretty decent collection of bottles myself.

  • Tom

    Greate story, love Coca Cola :)

  • My father worked for Signcrafts in the 50s – he said they were 3rd behind Pearce and Claudgen for neon signs.
    The company was at the bottom of Cobourg Rd (off of the Old Kent Rd), and was owned by a Mr Dobbins.
    The only reference I have found to them is in –
    They manufactured transformers for other companies and I believe built the first UK “Sky line” sign at one of the airports.
    Has anyone else heard of this company?

  • What an interesting article, haven’t seen the Coca-Cola advert for Christmas yet, won’t be long!

  • Stuart Crawford

    Absolutely gorgeous work – thanks for this!

  • Unit36

    Some brilliant ‘Hands on’ craftsmanship, all starting from pencil and paper, great to see.

  • Ben Gordon

    It’s fantastic to how it used to be done before computers! Nice article

  • Siminki

    Some real craftmanship going on there. Attention to detail is amazing and looks much harder than moving a mouse around!

  • The manual work that goes into something like this just makes you so thankful we work in a digital age – when I first started out (at an advertising agency) my old creative director told me when he first started out, he did everything by hand, not a computer in sight. This sort of craftsmanship is pretty rare these days