AG's ARTIN Design Blog


London Underground

London Underground and corporate identity

The following article will look at London Underground and its fabulous corporate identity. London underground was World’s first underground railway,  opened on 10 January 1863.  The first section of the Metropolitan opened from Paddington to Farringdon.  A second underground line, the District, began operating five years later. The two were eventually linked to create the Circle line in 1884. Baker Street Station was part of the first line which opened in that year.


The early Underground was a huge engineering achievement and a great success.  Most of the well-built Victorian tunnels, cuttings and stations are still in use by the  London Underground. However, it had one big disadvantage, steam underground was seen as a ‘mild form of torture’ by passengers.  Every effort was made to reduce the steam and smoke from locomotives underground. Coke was used as fuel instead of coal as it created less smoke. There were also ‘blow holes’ at intervals around the Circle. The eventual solution to the problem was electrification, which took place in 1905. Even though today’s technology is much better than before, some of the principles used in the Underground remain the same – like the “Barlow Shield”, used in the deep tunneling under the city. Among problems like the high ticket prices, there was one with of utmost importance – the lack of a clear identity.

The ‘Barlow Shield’ first used for deep tunneling under the Thames -­‐ ‘Tower Subway’ now Waterloo and City Line


Uncontrolled display of adver0sing and leMering at Goldhawk Road (operated jointly by the Metropolitan and Great Western Railways)

Westminster Station in 1902, showing the origins of sans–‐serif leMering on the Underground, but with lack of discipline and clear layout.

As it can be seen from the previous pictures in the beginning the attempts for working posters were lacking a lot of characteristics for successful graphic design.  Evolution of the Underground/London Transport Identity was largely due to the work of two men: Frank Pick and Albert H.Stanley.

Frank Pick ‘the man who made the London Underground’
London Transport Chief Execu0ve

Frank Pick became the Commercial Manager of Underground Electric Railways Company of London  in 1912. He became increasingly unhappy with the diversity and seemingly endless variations of typefaces that were being across the system. One of his first key actions was to introduce a standardised approach to advertising and lettering when he commissioned typographer Edward Johnston to design a clear new typeface for use on all Underground Group buildings, rolling stock and publications

Edward Johnston (1872-­‐1944) wri0ng ‘You will do very beau0ful work if you s0ck to it’

The series of type designers known, generically, as “Johnson sans”, remains one of the key elements in what has become one of Britain’s most extensive corporate identity projects, encompassing everything from station signs to route maps, timetables and posters.

Johnston’s typeface, (known as Johnston sans) was first used in 1916 and was so successful that it was used virtually unchanged up until 1979 when it was (slightly) reworked for the modern age. The typefaces success was down to its flexibility and legibility. His book “Writing and Illuminating and Lettering” is published, causing something of a “renaissance” for calligraphy. It is considered the most influential book on calligraphy ever written.


‘Essential forms’ from Writing and Illuminating and Lettering

The first posters in Johnston Sans, 1916

Johnston was also responsible for redesigning the roundel or bullseye device that still adorns underground stations to this day, with this drawing from 1925, clearly showing that the proportions and colours have remained largely unaltered. Also in this period, Frank Pick met Charles Holden, a gifted young architect who during a twenty year period up to the War, designed some of the most iconic of London Underground Buildings using a distinctive Scandinavian inspired, clean modern style which Pick felt was appropriate for his modern system.

Too0ng Bec stati0n,  built in 1926, showing architecture by Charles Holden, leMering by Johnston and roundel

The earliest use of self – consciously “modern” design in the Underground had appeared on the posters used to advertise the system. The use of pictorial posters to advertise travel was already established in Britain by the first years of the century, and the Underground was simply following the example of other railway companies when it  started to advertise in the same way around 1906. However, during World War I, the Underground began to publish posters that made use of imagery and motifs from avant-garde art; posters designed by Edward McKnight Kauffer, to represent the benefits and joys of travel used artistic devices that would at the time have been quite unfamiliar to most people and would have signified the underground electric railway as uncompromisingly modern.

1. Following maps published in 1906 of  the main group of four underground railways, the first all inclusive map was published in 1908 in the style shown here. Note that, although the map appears to be an accurate geographical representation.

2.  Map of the Metropolitan Railway, 1923 showing connections with the District Railway and the tube lines. There was even more geographical distortion on this map than on the 1908 general map; the outlying  parts of the line were considerably compressed.

3. Poster maps issued 1926, displaying the expanding network. Already the cartographer was in difficulties with the complexities of the central aria.

4. The card folder created by F.H Stingemore in January 1926,  very similar in style to the first edition in the series.
In this card it is recognizable a valiant effort to make the network more comprehensible, by some compression of the outlying portions and the removal of surface details which are completely unnecessary and actually  make the card more complicated.

The Birth of the Diagram

Henry C Beck at the age of 29 produced his first sketch for the Diagram in 1931.  His original sketch made on two pages of an exercise book. Here are the significant features of all the future versions of the design:

simplification of the route lines to verticals, horizontals or diagonals

the expansion of the central aria

elimination of all surface details except for the line of the River Thames, itself presented in the same stylized form as the route lines.

Visual presentation of the Diagram, drawn by Beck to show to the Publicity Department of the Underground. At this stage he was still following the established convention of using blobs to denote stations. The color coding too, was the same as that used in the Stingemore maps. It was this visual that was at first rejected in 1931, then accepted the following year as the basis for a trial printing.

First Card folder  edition of the Diagram and center portion of the reverse, folder to form a cover, issued in 1933. The blobs had been replaced by “ticks” and this simple alternation transformed the design completely, giving it an elegance lacking in the earlier proof . It is difficult to imagine how the increasingly complex versions of the diagram that were to follow would have succeeded without this small but crucial innovation.  For this work Beck was payed 10 guineas equal to 380 pounds. The oft-quoted figure of 5 guineas was the amount payed to him for the quad royal poster art-work.


1. “Johnston’s Underground Type”, Howes Justin

2.” Mr Beck’s Underground Map”, a history by Ken Garland, 1994

3. “Writing and Illuminating and Lettering”, Edward Johnson, 1994

4. “Objects of desire, Design and Society” Adrian Forty

5. Alan Powers lecture



One response to “London Underground

  1. January 23, 2013 at 9:55 am

    I really believe this particular blog post , “London Underground
    AG’s ARTIN Design Blog”, rather compelling plus the blog post was a remarkable read. Regards-Wilma

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