As London casts an appreciative look over the past 150 years of creative excellence by London Underground, the current crop of Transport for London designers and marketers are handling a remit that would be unrecognisable to their pioneering forebears.
Their responsibility goes far beyond the underground travel of old, and TfL’s main challenge is the transport system’s reach in the 21st century – across modes of transport both under- and overground. Just take a look at the iconic roundel – it currently exists in 11 colour-ways, from the tube’s red and blue to the Overground’s orange, cycle hire’s blue, and the purple of dial-a-ride.
The organisation too has evolved into a complex beast. Communications is split into marketing and pure design divisions, with the latter encompassing everything from station graphics and signage to new train design and development of the distinctive moquette patterns. Much of the work is commissioned from external agencies, such as lead above-the-line advertising agency M&C Saatchi, while other collateral including information leaflets, new Oyster Card graphics, overall branding or internal information posters are also designed in-house. Encouraging public art per se, meanwhile, tends to fall under the remit of Art on the Underground, a separate entity in charge of commissioning a programme of contemporary art. Since being formed in 2000 as Platform for Art, the programme has produced hundreds of new works.
But as those multicoloured roundels attest, the foundations of past design excellence still underpin much of today’s communications. Iconic brand elements created by London Underground more than a century ago, such as the roundel, the Johnston typeface or the strong colours of the tube lines so functionally rendered in Harry Beck’s enduring map, play a significant role – maybe an even more important one in tying together the present’s diverse properties.
“If you have powerful icons in your kitbag you should try to use them,” says Christopher Macleod, TfL’s marketing director who oversees creative communications. “We’re hugely aware of heritage, but the balance is about not being a slave to the past. You’ve got to move on in some areas, while still using those strong elements.”
In addition to the expanding scale of the network, the commissioning world has changed beyond recognition since the days of Frank Pick, he adds. “It’s important to put the history into context. In the past, the tube was at a different stage in its development and some of the graphic work was doing a slightly different job,” says Macleod.
“It was about the newness and appeal of that new mode of travel – and that’s simply not true now. It’s moved on. We need to produce such a wide range of customer information – that contrasts a little bit from the work in the 1920s or 30s when we were trying to get people to live in Golder’s Green for example.”
Today’s messages are far more abundant and varied – as TfL head of design Jon Hunter states matter-of-factly, “we have a harder task”. Communications have to ensure safety, encourage changes in behaviour, update passengers about infrastructure upgrades or summarise essential information in clear language to make journeys more seamless. TfL has to issue functional messages, as well as celebratory ones, soft and hard, wordy and snappy. There are tube maps, posters, leaflets, in-tube panels, stickers, station graphics, digital screens, tickets, websites and more.
With such a range of output, simplicity and clarity are vital – with function, rather than creative form, at the forefront of commissioning. “Some of the best ways [for us to communicate] are very graphic, very simple,” says Macleod. “We’re keen not to have any particular house style or to chase creativity for creativity’s sake.”
It is often on the more mundane messages that TfL has to work hardest, adds Mark Goodwin, creative director at M&C Saatchi. When informing passengers of upgrades to the system, for example, “you’re telling someone that their journey is disrupted, so being light-hearted about it isn’t going to work”. On the other hand, the organisation has a duty “not to bore”, says Macleod. “We’re not in the business of entertainment alone, but it’s nice if we can get the message across in an engaging and relevant way.” For example, in the 1990s, as bins were sealed to prevent bombing, what was a serious message about personal responsibility in tackling litter was rendered in a stylish series of posters with illustrations by Richard Spice among others.
A series of posters about litter in the 1980s appropriated distinctive brand elements – a creative solution that is still effective today. Many recent campaigns play with, and reinterpret, some of the tube’s most recognisable assets. A workman hoisting or painting sections of the Beck-map tube lines, or the roundel extolling upgrade plans are recent examples. Adapting this iconography to fit a certain message can be an interesting challenge, says Goodwin, “that’s the luxury of a very tight brief – it focuses how you think.”
Conveying a message that might have been banged out in different guises numerous times before is another creative quirk that working for London Underground presents, he adds.
“When you’re having to say something that’s been said 100 times before that’s when it’s a real creative challenge. But you can always find a new angle.” Last year’s safety campaign, for example, revisited familiar warnings of ‘mind the gap’ and ‘beware the escalators’ in a primary-coloured series of graphic posters, with a stylistic nod to the Mad Men title sequence.
Illustration forms an integral part of finding new ways to convey familiar messages, adds Goodwin. For example, the ‘Get Ahead of the Games’ campaign last Summer included caricatures of Olympic athletes, painted by different artists including Dan Lambert, Damian Johnston and Stephen Chappell, while a recent series of posters about the network improvement included simple and contemporary illustration by Nicola Meiring.
Photography is also often put to good effect. A series of humorous posters reminding travellers to check for updates ahead of the Queen’s Jubilee weekend was shot by David Stewart, while photographer Jason Hindley applied his meticulous approach to the ‘No surprises – check for Christmas and New Year’ campaign in 2011, among others.
Overall, much of the current work remains true to what made the iconic posters of the past so arresting and lasting, believes Macleod. “Our work needs to be engaging and attractive while still doing a job,” he says. Hunter admits that while in the past many communications might have been artistically led, today’s design and advertising needs to put function over form – nonetheless, he adds, “I’d like to think that we still operate to the same design values as our predecessors”.
The job, however, has been made even harder by changes in today’s underground environment. “The environment where people are seeing this work is incredibly crowded – not like it was in 1950s. So the ability to engage and communicate these often very important messages is our primary concern,” Goodwin points out.
Fittingly, the medium that has played such a huge part in LU’s design heritage, the printed poster, still plays a large role in communicating to a captive audience underground. “I like it,” says Goodwin. “It’s the perfect piece of media. They’re great spaces, whether it’s a six sheet, an in-tube panel or a cross-track poster. And because a lot of the time they are in situ, to some extent it makes the job easier.”
Despite the endurance of the poster, other media are becoming increasingly important, with radio proving a popular campaign medium, and digital platforms playing a growing role. “As technology develops we have more challenges,” says Hunter. “Yes, we like to use posters, but of course we are switching to a digital world. People will want interactive content, they will want to see things moving, which is something we will need to deliver through our network. And as more people consume their information via smart devices, everything needs to become more workable in the digital space. For example, we need to make sure that our typeface is working fully in the digital world.”
So even though TfL is embracing the celebrations of London Underground with gusto, its gaze is firmly fixed towards the future. “The graphic heritage of TfL is always in the background,” says Goodwin, “but TfL realises that even though it is right to celebrate the past 150 years, the emphasis is very much about the next 150 years.”
Macleod points to the current 150 anniversary campaign, screening on the digital escalator panels at numerous stations. It features a parade of tube passengers through the decades – including a futuristic space-age hologram figure. “The campaign is as much about what the tube will be like in the future [as it is about the past],” he says. “We’re keen not to be constantly looking backwards.”