A hard won serenity

A recent crop of posters from the Greater London Authority marks the return of intelligent design on the tube network

It can sometimes feel like a grim business, writing the advertising column for Creative Review. The news is generally bad: the work is getting worse, the clients are getting nastier, the awards are getting scammier.

So it feels good to have a positive story, just for a change. It begins around this time last year, when I noticed a couple of excellent adverts on the London Underground. The first was for the St George’s Day event in Trafalgar Square, the second for the public celebrations to mark the marriage of Kate and Will. Both used witty illustrations, in a flat graphic style, and a neat sans serif, left-aligned. Surprisingly, both carried logos from the Mayor of London and TfL at the bottom.

They stood out for me in particular because the advertising produced by London’s municipal authorities had always been something of a pet hate of mine. The inglorious ‘To find out how much an illegal minicab could cost you, ask a rape victim’ poster was, to my mind, one of the worst ads ever made. And then there was that Notting Hill Carnival ad, the one that showed a dreadlocked Caucasian dancing to Shabba Ranks (or maybe Inner Circle, it was hard to tell) which I’d always thought was an insult to everyone who saw it, no matter their colour or creed. And if the ideas were bad, the design was often worse. Photography was hideously comped and haphazardly arranged. Copy was too long, sized too small, and set in a line-length that would make your eyes bleed.

By contrast, this campaign was radiant in its clarity. It seemed to tip its hat to London’s design heritage: the dignified, spaced caps of Edward Johnston, the panache of Paolozzi’s mosaics and the classic Underground posters of the 60s. Over the course of the year, it became apparent that this wasn’t just a campaign, it was a brand. One that addressed Londoners, that most sophisticated of audiences, in their own voice.

So who was behind this most extraordinary uptick in quality? I met up with one of those responsible, Tom Lancaster, head of design for the Greater London Authority. Lancaster joined the GLA in 2011, after several years in-house at Orange. The situation he arrived into will be familiar to many: “Everything was up for grabs,” he says “everything that went out the door was a result of a design by committee.” To forge the brand he first had to establish a few ground rules. “It sounds tyrannical but you have to crush sub-brands,” he says, with something approaching a glint in his eye. With the support of Dan Ritterband, the director of marketing at the GLA and an ex-ad man, he was able to advocate the use of a single typeface, Akzidenz. The bold graphic style was sold in as a question of necessity. “All of that media space is behind the viewer,” he says. “There is no dwell time, you just have a few seconds to reach people as they’re getting off the tube.”

He’s modest about his team’s achievements, but it occurs to me that he’s succeeded in both kinds of design – the design that takes place on the page, and the design of the process that gets you there. Having a strong rationale in place gave him a position to defend against marauding marketers. “By having consistency you get away from that ‘I don’t like that shade of yellow or why can’t I have a pink poster?'” In fact his template has proved so strong that the other agencies which work into the Mayor’s office, M&C and St Luke’s, have been able to produce work that integrates seamlessly with it.
And with the structure now established there has been room for play. The Summer Like No Other campaign features a black background. When I suggest that might have been a hard sell, Lancaster agrees, but with the insouciance of a man who’s won his argument. “Londoners are immersed in advertising, they’re savvy enough not to need to have sun and river for summer.”

For me, it’s an inspirational story. If these ads seem calm, their serenity was hard won. But it was worth it. Design for the masses is too important to be left to committees.

Gordon Comstock is an ad creative based in London. He tweets at @notvoodoo. For more of Tom Lancaster’s work, visit his site at toml.co.uk and the GLA’s london.gov.uk. He also blogs at chefskiss.wordpress.com


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