The tube at 150

The history of the London Underground is the history of visual communications. As it celebrates its 150th anniversary, we look at the past and future of design on the network and, here, Mark Sinclair introduces a new book on its achievements

The story of design on the London Underground is one of remarkable longevity. Even as the elements that would form a coherent visual identity for the organisation took hold in the early years of the 20th century, trains had already been rumbling underneath the city for nearly 50 years. By this point the Underground had witnessed the birth of commercial art and advertising, and would soon come to recognise the emergence of graphic design, way-finding systems and corporate identities. In a way, the Underground is a test case for modern visual communications.

Having established its seven-station line between Paddington Station and Farringdon Street in 1863, the first underground railway company, the Metropolitan, was soon joined by rivals operating their own lines: the District, the City and Southern London Railway, and the Underground Electric Railway Company of London. As the network expanded across the capital (and further into its suburbs) it would be several decades before a single transport organisation emerged.

In his new book, London Underground by Design, Mark Ovenden writes that the name and its distinctive ‘UndergrounD’ form had been adopted by 1908 (first appearing on a pocket map, six million of which were printed). Around this time, station name-boards were streamlined and posters and publicity became more coordinated. By 1912, various influences had come together to result in the distinctive roundel, a logo that remains in use to this day. The following year, the Johnston typeface was created for use across the entire system.

“It was absolutely the merger of everything together,” says Ovenden of the point at which the Underground emerged from a collection of separate train companies each with their own lettering and livery. “They then had to try and figure out a way of enabling the public to use the same system,” he says. It was certainly a bold experiment to attempt to unify a public transport system at such a scale. “There wasn’t really anyone else that was doing that,” says Ovenden. “They were grasping on to the idea of branding before we really knew what branding was”.

That many of these elements remain in use over 100 years later is testament to both the strength of the work and its ability to evolve over time. Unlike the Paris Metro, “which is like a living museum,” says Ovenden, the Underground is a more heady mix of the old and the new. While always in flux, the system continues to reflect the times at which its constituent parts were designed, from the Arts and Crafts motifs of Leslie Green’s station designs or Charles Holden’s modernist boxes on the Piccadilly Line; to the public art projects on the 1960s Victoria Line, and the Jubilee’s architectural feats in time for the millennium.

That so much of the design history of the Underground can be mapped is down to the efforts of the London Transport Museum and the Transport for London Archives. But it takes the dedication of an observer like Ovenden to extract what is relevant to tell the story, and to unearth the interesting things long buried in files and boxes. And there are plenty of new finds in his book, from a fascinating new theory on the emergence of the roundel design (addressed in the following pages), to pictorial evidence of an errant signage programme which appeared on a single tube line while the roundel was in ascendence. “There are things that have never been seen before, like the green diamonds used on the East London Line,” says Ovenden. “I found the original sketches, and the correspondence between [LU publicity officer] Frank Pick and the man who designed them.” Pick was the seminal figure who first envisaged the Underground’s design as a holistic system – in the case of the green diamonds, the signs had been ordered without Pick’s consultation or approval.

The network’s design story is also one of the untrained designer changing things from the inside, as much as it is of established artists working with the brand. Harry Beck and, later, Paul Garbutt were LU employees who saw how mapping a transport system which largely existed below the surface of the city, need not rely on the geography of the ground above it. This radical clear thinking led Beck to his 1933 tube map, now one of the most celebrated designs of the 20th-century.

The look of the Underground has had currency and influence all over the world, not least on the transport systems of several other cities. “It’s an amazing part of our national design history,” says Ovenden. And with that in mind, this edition of CR attempts to unpick the parts that have made the Underground recognised far beyond the capital. We begin with a design tour of the network, and en route examine station graphics, tube merchandise and the Underground’s unrivalled poster tradition. We end with a look at where the brand is today, 150 years on.

London Underground by Design is published by Penguin; £20. penguin.co.uk, markovenden.com

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