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PREFACE One of the world’s most famous and historic cities, London, has been shaped not only by the architecture and sites that lie above it but also what rules the city below, the London Transit System. The London Underground, shortened by locals as the Tube, is the world’s oldest metro system dating back to its first station’s opening in 18632. The Underground is part of the daily routine for most Londoners, and provides the easiest way to get across parts of the city. The Underground has influenced not only the way cities around the world look at public transportation, but it also has affected the way they communicate the form, ease and function of transportation. This revelation in its design aesthetic comes primarily from influencers such as Frank Pick and Harry Beck. 2


THE TUBE’S BEGINNINGS In 1845, even before the regular railway had taken steam, a progressive named Charles Pearson proposed a “train in the drains” that would make commuting in the bustling metropolis of London a little easier and decrease automobile traffic above ground. The first Underground line, the Metropolitan Line, opened


between Paddington and Farringdon Street on January 10, 1863, drawing in a crowd of over 30,000. This was the first underground railway ever created and would forever change the way cities moved. The District and Circle lines soon followed after, and as time went on, popularity increased in conjunction to the number of

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stops, with the help of increasing technology11. The first branding of the Tube can be traced back to American financier Charles Tyson Yerkes’ desire to unify a system that consisted of separate transit lines at the time, creating similarities in each of the stations. The branding of the Tube started to take off when a

man named Frank Pick began to work for Yerkes and was commissioned to be publicity officer. Pick was not a designer himself, but his design sensibility would spark a revolution11.


FRANK PICK When Frank Pick first started working for the London Underground, it was dark, noisy, confusing and smelly4. The Times even referred to the Tube as “a mild form of torture.” Pick’s goal, as the first chief executive of London Transport for the Underground, which he was named in 1931, was to transform this innovative system with a bad reputation into one of the most renowned transit systems in the world4. Pick was not impressed with previous promotional efforts for the Tube, and he believed a more unique way was possible to get people on the underground railway system. He wanted everything to be streamlined and easily communicated throughout media9. As stated on, “Through advertising, branding, architecture and integrated design he changed the


public perception of the Underground and profoundly affected the growth and success of London town.” His vision of the Tube, which led to its transformation, included picking artists and designers for the Underground’s multiple branded elements including its font, signage, map and promotional posters. Every element of design is a result of Pick’s overarching vision9. During Pick’s last years he helped people escape the WWII Blitz bombing of London by organizing evacuation methods and allowing the Underground as a safe place to escape during the night’s bombings. Pick worked until his death in 1941, in both keeping people safe as well as keeping the Tube’s overall design aesthetic strong and consistent4.

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EDWARD JOHNSTON One of the first of Pick’s commissioned design innovations as Chief Executive of London Transport was assigning Edward Johnston to create a unique font for the rail system. Johnston was a calligrapher and teacher who was directed to create a typeface that was crisp and distinguished16. According to the Guardian, Johnston was a typographic purist, deriving his inspiration back to Trajan’s column and its Roman capitals. He stated these were the grandest letterforms ever inscribed. To create the Underground’s typeface he stripped the elements of these capitals to their purest source, creating a sans-serif font that was both timeless and modern. He sought functionality and clarity in these stripped-down letterforms. For example, the letter “O” of the type is a perfect circle, and the rest of the letters had perfect angular lines4. This font, which was created in 1916, also helped bring popularity to the sans serif. Johnston’s Railway type was so successful that it is still used today for the tube’s signage, map, and all associated branded products of the London Underground16. It also inspired a magnitude of other typeface designers, including Eric Gill, a former student. With the success of his font, Gill Sans, he admitted the font was largely based off of his former educator’s, Johnston’s typographic work on the Johnston font16. “I hope you realize that I take every opportunity of proclaiming the fact that what the Monotype people call Gill Sans owes all its goodness to your Underground letter,” Gill wrote in a letter to Johnston later in life16. Johnston’s font was modified most recently in the 1980s, and is slated for a more modern version in 2016. Locals often call the font

“London’s handwriting7.” The evolving of the Tube’s font also affected the way the Underground’s symbol would look. The earliest form of the Tube’s signage featured a solid red circle with a blue bar across it. It wasn’t until 1918 that Johnston created the signage similar of the logo of today. He inscribed “Underground” in all caps using the Railway font, allowing it to stretch across the bar that goes through the middle of the circle. This iconic logo is known as the bulls-eye or roundel. It is so iconic, that the only symbol that has gotten closest to its popularity and city symbolism is the “I heart NY” logo. The red circle in the logo provides a networkwide consistency, defining entrances, ticket stands, and customer service locations. The shape is easily convertible with its simple design. Names of stations can be switched out with the general “London Underground” title. The roundel also acts as guide for passengers to lead them through the station7. The bulls-eye is implemented throughout a multitude of design elements across the Tube, including its signage, posters and promotional materials. Versions of it have evolved over the years, but the main aesthetic has remained largely the same4. As stated in, “The London Transport logo served to establish the identity of a brand decades before airlines and automakers awoke to the power of identity design and branding in the 1930s. By the 1950s, London Transit had become a beacon of integrated design, using a consistent visual language across every aspect of its operation to weave the narrative of the entire brand17.”


HARRY BECK AND THE UNDERGROUND MAP Prior to 1908, each Underground line had its own individual map, making navigation extremely difficult. The design also was confusing for readers because of its curves and crowdedness in line illustrations8. Because of this confusion in the map’s design, Harry Beck, an engineer and draftsman, decided to redesign the map for the most complicated transit system in the world11. With no previous design experience, he took it upon himself as a challenge. Inspired by this background in engineering, he created a map that resembled a circuit board. He combined the lines of the individual maps into one consolidated one, and turned curves into 45- and 90-degree angles. His design was first met with apprehension,


because it was too revolutionary. However, the ease of navigation that the Underground has currently is thanks to Beck. It has evolved over the years with the increase in lines but it has not gone far from Beck’s strict design principles11. As stated in Verge, “prior to Beck’s design, the underground map was about as legible as a bowl of spaghetti11.” That is no longer true today. Today it is one of the most iconic transit maps in the world. Part of the reason the map is so easy to read is because Beck created a map that focused more on legibility rather than geography. He decided to change the map’s focus to this because he figured passengers did not care about the physical distance of each station, but

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rather finding their way in and out of the stations. He also showed how all the lines were connected5. This map was met well with consumers. It was a design innovation with its color-coding and complex interchanges between the routes added functionality11. He enlarged the area around central London where the lines were most congested so that the map was easier to read. Beck’s design was later edited by Harold F. Hutchinson, but the main principles that Beck introduced over 85 years ago are still prominent in today’s system map. The London Underground’s map became almost a template of inspiration for many other transportation systems around the world14. Beck’s influence on metro maps has been stated to

extend from Atlanta to Zurich. However, one of Beck’s most interesting participation outside the London Underground was with the Paris Metro system. After seeing Beck’s work for the Tube, he was approached to work on the Metro map. He started drafting proposals for the map in the early 1930’s but did not finish until after WWII. With over 200 stops in the smaller area than London, this map was a challenge for Beck. He created an even more angular map than the Underground that did not speak well with the French. He created a revised version but it was also rejected6.


Posters by [top left] Edward McKnightKauffer, [top right] Alfred Leete, [middle left] James Fitton, [middle center], Edward McKnightKauffer, [middle right] Hans Schleger, [bottom left] Austin Cooper, [bottom center] Mary Koop, [bottom right] Transport for London


POSTERS OF THE UNDERGROUND Another part of Frank Pick’s efforts was leaving spots for posters in his stations and the Tube itself to promote advertising. He also commissioned poster art that created marketing materials for the Underground itself. Over 100 years has passed since the start of the commissioned posters. These decades of posters gave us a glimpse into a multitude of design movements as well as historical events. Most the posters have a vibe that is distinctively London and has a sense of British humor and wit. For example, in 1915, a Tube advertisement compared the speed of horses and buggies to the speedy Underground system11. In the 1920’s as new stations were built, new posters would advertise how to get there and what to do when getting there. During World War II, the London Underground was a place of security for residents of London to take safety from the nightly Blitzkrieg bombings. Posters invoked keeping up morale during wartimes, promoted wartime jobs and informed the people about shelters. In later years, Tube posters would promote things to do in London, such as going shopping or visiting the zoo. For example, a poster by Marc Severin, “Why wait till later?” advertises going out to the movies in London by depicting a cinema and the Tube logo as a clock to depict its late hours. No matter what the theme of the poster, they were all thought-out, well designed and creative11. Poster artists featured throughout the time of Frank Pick’s administration included Austin Cooper, Edward McKnight-Kauffer, Man Ray, Hans Schleger and countless others10. The range in styles through the posters is incredible, and demonstrated a variety of historic design movements. The range of styles varied. Posters would range from anything such as idyllic watercolors, to Avant Garde abstractions. Austin Cooper was known for his posters that promoted the Underground during both summer and winter seasons. His posters “It’s cooler down

below,” and “It’s warmer down below” promoted the contrast in temperatures during summer and winter respectively with comparison to how it felt in the Tube stations. Geometric shapes and cubes blended into each other with the colors of the blocks transforming from the top to the bottom on these posters. Cooper also has other posters with a more naturalistic style that displayed London’s top sites and promoted things like when were the best times to shop in London10. Edward McKnight-Kauffer, one of the Underground’s most famous and influential poster designers, created over 141 advertisements for the Tube. McKnight-Kauffer revolutionized Underground art with his distinctive style that ranged from cubist to surrealism3. He started with landscape posters and over a 25-year period of designing these, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, he switched to his popular abstract style10. Emmanuel Radnitzky, also known as Man Ray, created “the planet-orbiting roundel” Underground poster (1938). The poster was made up of a 3D surrealist style that featured the Tube’s signage juxtaposed to the planet Saturn in black background representing space. This showed the similarity in aesthetic features between the logo and the planet, while making the Tube seem “Out of this World.” The text at the end simply read “Keeps London Going10.” Most posters commissioned by Pick were aimed at promoting some aspect of the Tube, whether it be a new or constant feature. For example, Pick often promoted the stations as destinations in their own right, as most of the stations featured beautiful, modern and streamlined architecture. The London Underground’s poster series speak for themselves. The design style of these posters stretches a multitude of movements from the early 1900s to today. Pick’s decision to leave spaces for art posters throughout the system made the Underground a leader in graphic design10.


ART ON THE UNDERGROUND MOVEMENT In the 1980’s the Underground faced an all-time low in sales when passenger numbers declined and fares increased. This decline lowered the amount of advertisements the Tube could host in its stations and, thus, affected its artistic impact. Dr. Henry Fitzhugh, the director of Marketing and Development Director at the time of this sales decline, ignited a poster commissioning initiative, called “Art on the Underground” to keep poster design for the Underground alive. The posters, and work associated with the movement would serve an aesthetic purpose as opposed to just advertising one2. “Art on the Underground” is movement that has expanded by London Transport to promote the Tube as a social and cultural movement2. The project commissions artists to create contemporary art in the form of posters, series and performance arts for London Transport and the things that encompass it. This movement has the goal to increase the passengers’ overall daily experiences riding the Tube. Another mission for the project, as stated on Transport for London’s website includes strengthening the links between the city and the people it serves, build on the Underground’s artistic and design legacy that has been established for over 100 years, and to champion art in the global city while also fostering careers for young artists. This project creates work for anything such as signage or map cover designs. Most of the art has a modern feel7. For example, one recent project called


“Labyrinth” features artwork at all 270 Tube stations for the Underground’s 150th anniversary. In a video for Labyrinth, the artist, Mark Wallinger, states, “Harry Beck’s map has always been mapped in my mind… It’s part of one’s identity as a Londoner.” He sees the daily transporting of people from one stop to another with ways in and out similar to a labyrinth, which sparked his idea for the series. Using the same company that creates the Tube’s signage he created black and white labyrinth posters with a red x, that were similar but different for each station. The Labyrinth has features similar to the Roundel and the red “X” implies, “You are here.” Each sign is hand printed to evoke superb craftsman ship. The work suggests the beginning of a journey and its eventual return through a poetic link1. A common design update is the commissioning of the covers of the Underground pocket maps. For example, the Underground commissioned Britishbased German artist Tomma Abts for a cover design in January 2016. His work, like the work of other covers, features an ode to the Tube map’s design. His design in particular features the colors of the transit system created in colored pencil. He creates a 3D effect with this and defies real light sources15. The result of the design shows balance and tonality amongst the colors. Designs for the London Underground also stretch to the local community, such as children’s poster design competitions. This is part of a movement to keep design outside just its commissioned work, and for a cause in schools.

[above] Labryrinth exhibit; [below] More than a Copy exhibit; photos courtesy of


DESIGN TODAY Most recently, in December 2015, the London Underground released the “Design Idiom,” a guide that outlines the Underground’s basic design standards and regulations to keep up with its high aesthetic value. This 225-page book contains a style guide for different design types and stations. The design of each station should have individuality, but relate back to the station as a whole14. The guide starts out with a manifesto on good design: The heritage of high quality design throughout the Underground is evident for all to see. Great design, through the years, has (literally) put the Underground on the map. The future of design on the network must expand upon and learn from this great history, to ensure the Underground’s continuing success as it develops and grows in the 21st Century7. The Design Idiom intends to implement the Underground’s design to its highest standards because it allows better flow for costumers, lifts moods, makes memorable moments, and helps people7. The book states good design includes a sense of balance, order and security. The idiom builds on the legacy on the Underground’s strong design aesthetic. With an increase in London’s population expected for the future, the design


also hopes to facility it. The guide states nine principles that should be implemented in each tube station and throughout marketing materials. The design principles help consumers achieve their most hierarchical needs, such as providing a transportation system that can get them places safely and efficiently. People also look for structure that provides easy clues on how to get from A to B. The book contains specifics on the look of the Underground on everything from its benches to its ceilings, to its exit signs14. The Idiom contains a complete design rendering for Idiom Park, a fictional station of the future. The station has rendering of both architectural and design elements12. The architectural design of the stations featuring on bringing natural light and lighting that creates a sense of belonging. The roundel will remain prominent also to create ease of accessibility. Other features outside the station include planting and cycle renting stations7. The book aims to create stations that vary and surprise so that it keeps uniqueness. It starts design has been overshadowed by internal problems such as poor maintenance tat distracts from it. The Idiom aims to keep the tradition of the design of the Underground while also elevating its design toward the future and technological advances14.

Renderings from Idiom Park; photos courtesy of


CONCLUSION Today, the Underground still holds true to its design principles that have been implemented over 100 years ago, and its brand as a whole has kept its popularity for over 150 years. The Underground’s reputation also stretches outside the realm of signage and maps and has commercialized onto T-shirts, posters and other types of merchandise that the millions of tourists that flock to London each year can take home. Its character adds a unique representation that is not seen in other transit systems across the world7. “Mind the Gap,” a term that speaks over the rails between stops is synonymous with the Tube and resembles the British sense of politeness. Tube workers are available at each stop, and with the bright lights give a sense of welcomeness. Its design passes outside the map lines and even the cars themselves. The cars’ colors match the map’s corresponding colors, adding to its ease of navigation. The Tube, unlike, the New York Subway, is cleaned nightly, which adds a pleasantness to its transportation. As stated in the Idiom, “Great design, through the years, has (literally) put the Underground on the map7.”


REFERENCES 1. About Labyrinth by Mark Wallinger. (n.d.). Retrieved May 03, 2016, from about/ 2. A brief history of the Underground. (n.d.). Retrieved May 03, 2016, from about-tfl/culture-and-heritage/londons-transport-a-history/london-underground/a-brief-history-of-the-underground 3. E. McKnight Kauffer. (n.d.). Retrieved May 03, 2016, from 4. Genius of the London Underground - Frank Pick - Distorted. (n.d.). Retrieved May 03, 2016, from 5. Harry Beck | Biography, Designs and Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved May 03, 2016, from 6. Harry Beck: The Paris Connection. (n.d.). Retrieved May 03, 2016, from https://www.creativereview. 7. London Underground Station Design Idiom. (2015). 8. Meet Harry Beck, the genius behind London's iconic subway map. (2013). Retrieved May 03, 2016, from 9. Meggs, P. B., & Purvis, A. W. (2012). Meggs' history of graphic design. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. 10. Ovenden, M. (2013). London Underground by design. 11. Poster Art 150: The best bits. (n.d.). Retrieved May 03, 2016, from things-to-do/poster-art-150-london-undergrounds-greatest-designs-gallery 12. TfL has revealed its Tube station of the future. (2015). Retrieved May 03, 2016, from http://metro. 13. TfL's Idiom Park is a blueprint for London's 'station of the future' (Wired UK). (n.d.). Retrieved May 03, 2016, from 14. The DNA of a London Underground Station. (2015). Retrieved May 03, 2016, from 15. Tomma Abts Pocket Tube Map. (n.d.). Retrieved May 03, 2016, from tomma-abts-pocket-tube-map/?numPosts=16 16. Wainwright, O. (2016). London to the letter: Meet Edward Johnston, the font of all tube style. Retrieved May 03, 2016, from 17. What Makes Iconic Design: Lessons from the Visual History of the London Underground Logo. (2013). Retrieved May 03, 2016, fromÂŹ


Design of the London Underground  
Design of the London Underground