A bar and a circle. A line and a hole. A train and a tunnel? It’s difficult to say whether repetition and association alone made the red-and-blue roundel inseparable from the Underground, or whether some subliminal mental connection with the physical infrastructure was also involved. Either way, it remains one of the world’s most durable and adaptable corporate symbols. And after a century of signposting affordable transport and dependable shelter (from bombs as well as bad weather), the Underground roundel also holds a special place in the psyche of the British public.
It took a while – around 40 years, in fact – for it to reach its modern incarnation. We have Edward Johnston, Frank Pick and numerous other Underground figures to thank for their respective contributions along the way. But there were more unlikely influences on the symbol’s earliest development, including a London Olympics, Parisian street signs and, perhaps, a solar eclipse.
Although the term ‘Underground’ had been in common use for decades, it wasn’t until 1908 that it was introduced by the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL) as a brand for its system of three deep-level ‘tube’ lines. A logotype followed in an all-caps (as was the vogue), sans-serif font, with the ‘U’ and ‘D’ enlarged at each end (to signify ‘up’ and ‘down’?), and dashes (rail tracks?) above and below the other letters.
In parallel to this (and to events last summer), UERL had been looking for ways to make its station nameplates stand out from the advertising on platform walls in advance of the 1908 Olympic Games at White City. UERL boss Albert Stanley had been impressed by the system used on the Paris Metro, its 2 3 platform nameplates borrowed their format of white sans-serif letters on blue strips from enamel street signs above ground.
When a similar format was tried out at St James’s Park station, beneath the UERL offices, solid red semi-circles were added either side of the blue strip – the product of earlier research into signing. The experiment was a success, and ‘bulls-eye’ nameplates were installed over the next six years at one-coach intervals along the platforms at every UERL station.
In his new book London Underground by Design (see p18), Mark Ovenden claims that key to the transformation of these signs into a logo was Charles Sharland’s 1912 poster encouraging Londoners to view the solar eclipse from certain destinations. Sharland placed the ‘UndergrounD’ logotype in the now-familiar bull’s-eye over a silhouette of the moon, with the sun behind, and, claims Ovenden, a logo was born.
Even as UERL erected it at the entrance to stations, the logo was evolving. Commercial manager Frank Pick seems to have been the one who pushed for the switch from a solid circle to a ring. He then commissioned Edward Johnston to marry his new eponymous typeface with the ring symbol, setting ‘UndergrounD’ in the sans-serif font that has lasted to this day, bar one or two tweaks. The design was registered as a trademark in 1917, although Johnston would adjust the dimensions of the ring in 1920 to create the proportions that made the roundel famous.
It was woven into the fabric of the Tube system, as decoration on tiles, as clocks, as seat cloth, as ‘Way Out’, ‘To Trains’ and ‘No Smoking’ signs. But it was the backlit roundel, glowing in the smog above station entrances, that Londoners adopted as a sign of technologically advanced travel synonymous with their city, and a source of enormous civic pride. In the Blitz, it was much more: it signposted a sanctuary that could save your life.
Since then, it has grown into a symbol for London itself, an emblem not just for the tube but for buses and everything else above ground in the British capital. A blue bar on a red ring, on a white background. Elementary shapes in the national colours. It’s us. However long and pushy the queues get, however densely we stuff ourselves into the sardine-tin train carriages, our affection for the roundel never seems to dim.