There are few, if any, single bodies of work as influential in early 20th century graphic design as the work produced for the London Underground. Ranging from typeface to posters to maps, the London Underground graphics of the 1910s through 1930s both exemplified the aesthetics of modernist movements and helped to shape the future of information design and typography.
When Steven Heller asked philosopher Edward Tenner what he considered the most significant graphic design of the past century, Tenner responded, “For lasting and positive influence, I doubt anything beats the London Transport’s ensemble of structures, signs, posters, publications, and maps… It reflected an ideal of ultrarational, benignly hegemonic public authority… The basics of the design have remained, but the system has not kept up, even if its great heritage has been largely preserved” (1).
The Tube Map
Perhaps the most iconic and famous single design piece from the London Underground collection is the map design produced by Henry C. Beck in 1931, and published in 1933. This map, which helped to shape information design for decades to come, has been called “a breakthrough,” “revolutionary” and even “the prototype of the modern map” (2).
As the London railway system grew in the 1920s, the geographically accurate maps of the time became more and more cluttered with stops and lines, confusing passengers in a subterranean system devoid of surface landmarks. Beck, who was an electrical draftsman for the Underground, envisioned a diagrammatic map of the complex maze of rail lines similar to an electrical chart. To accomplish this, he would need to dispose of a certain level of geographic accuracy. In other words, Beck “traded geographical verisimilitude for topographical simplicity and followed a rigid formula: lines ran only vertically, horizontally, or on 45-degree angles” (3). Additionally, Beck represented the stations at an equal distance from one another on the map, irrespective of the actual geographic distances.
More importantly, Beck’s map introduced a new way of visually interpreting and expressing space, reorganizing geography to conform to visual priorities instead of to literal topography (2). The simplicity of this reorganization provided an unprecedented level of clarity and logic for public consumption because it reflected a cultural and technological reality which rendered previous notions of time and space anachronistic. This clarity was not dependent on an innate understanding of graphic design, nor on the ability of readers to visualize accurate geography; it relied instead on a shared understanding of modernity, urbanity and visual hierarchies. The map codified and standardized a system of connections and points in space, without regard to the temporal relationships between them. The geometric design served to “overlay everyday life with modernism’s concept of space and time as malleable and serviceable” (2).
This approach was indeed revolutionary. In fact, it was so radical that the London Underground rejected Beck’s initial design, claiming it would be confusing and incomprehensible to the public. When he resubmitted the design more than a year later, the Underground agreed to a trial printing, which they distributed to the public to elicit feedback. To their surprise, the diagrammatic map was an overwhelming success (2). The map was printed and universally distributed in 1933.
The original map is widely viewed as a seminal work in both cartography and graphic design (2). Perhaps indeed the prototype of the modern map, Beck’s design influence can be seen in transport systems across the globe. “All subway maps since, from Cologne to Tokyo to Washington, D.C., have owed a debt to Beck’s design” (3).
In 1916, London Underground’s managing director, Frank Pick, commissioned calligrapher Edward Johnston to design a typeface for the transport company as part of an effort to strengthen the Underground’s corporate identity. Over the next two years, Johnston worked to develop a typeface that embodied Pick’s demands for “the grandeur and simplicity of classical forms – easy to read, individual, and eloquent in spirit” (4).
The resulting alphabet design, pictured right, was both elegant and innovative. Incorporating a perfect circle as its basis, the Johnston Underground (and later New Johnston) typeface “became known as the first humanistic sans-serif, in direct contrast to the ubiquitous, over-weight, heavyhanded, tortured-looking Victorian grotesque sans” (5).
Edward Johnston’s calligraphic influence can been seen in many of the lowercase letters, such as the curved tail on the “l” and the diamond-shaped dots on the “i” and “j” characters. Pick was pleased, and the typeface became the official type of the London Underground. It was incorporated into the roundel logo, and by the mid-1930s helped make the Underground’s corporate identity world-famous (5).
Johnston had durable influence, forever changing the evolution of 20th Century type design (4). Most notably, Eric Gill created the now-ubiquitous Gill Sans based on the Johnston typeface in the late 1920s (6). The typeface provided the basis for the humanist family of sans-serif fonts, elegant in their simplicity. Even today, the original Johnston typeface “still strikes an efficient modern note amidst the dirt and gloom” (7) of the typographic landscape.
The Art of Transportation • 1908 – 1940
The third groundbreaking element of the London Underground’s graphics campaign was a series of posters to advertise the public transport system and convey messages to its ridership. But beyond the surface-level messages was a deeper mission of art democratization, or “art for the people” (4). American designer J. J. Sedelmaier wrote of the posters, “I can’t think of a more substantial and influential collection of posters designed under one company’s umbrella than the posters of the London Underground” (8).
To understand how these posters came to exist, we must first understand something of the patron who commissioned them. Frank Pick became the publicity director for the Underground Group in 1908. He spent the next few decades tirelessly working to renovate the corporation’s identity and by 1933 he was the first CEO of the consolidated London Transport (9). Pick’s commitment to high standards of visual design in corporate graphics, and what he called “fitness for purpose” in the applied arts, became embedded in the corporate ideology of London Transport (9). He believed firmly in aesthetic cohesion, which eventually extended beyond print graphics to station architecture, lighting, and systems design for London Transport (4).
Pick began commissioning poster art in 1908 from both established and new artists. At the time, the existing legacy of poster design was largely Edwardian; type-dominant layout often designed by printers (4). But Pick saw the potential for Underground posters to transcend mere utility.
The early posters reflected the Arts and Crafts movement, and caused little controversy. However, by the mid-1910s, the posters began to push the boundaries of traditional art, with flat color images of nature that were considered radical and thoroughly unnatural (4). During the years of WWI, a series of bold posters served both as war recruitment advertisements and PR for London Transport. After the war, Pick’s choices in artists and style for the posters became bolder and more radical; enough so that the following letter was written to the London Mercury in 1921:
Impossible ducks, futurist trees, vermillion grass and such like absurdities may appeal to what, as I have no wish to be offensive, I will call the higher thought. But believe me, sir, those people who live their lives in the ordinary conventional way need nothing more subtle in a poster than a straightforward appeal to their sense of pleasure and duty.
Yours sincerely . . .” (4)
This controversy only seemed to spur Frank Pick to continue his radical commissions, and during the 1920s-1930s the Underground’s posters reached a zenith of stylistic quality, with over 40 posters produced every year (10). In the 1930s, as the Nazis came to power in Europe, many avante-garde artists fled to Britain and were subsequently commissioned by Pick to design posters demonstrating strong elements of Futurism, Cubism, Constructivism and Vorticism (4). While Pick’s philosophy regarding poster art was that it could “move from the most literal representation to the wildest impression so long as the subject remained clear” (10), it should be noted that Pick also commissioned traditional landscape artists to depict peaceful country scenes to attract leisure ridership (4). While he knew these traditional posters could reassure the public, he also realized that through poster design their tastes could broaden beyond the traditional into the realm of the adventurous and even shocking (10).
These posters were significant in many ways. First, Frank Pick himself was extraordinary as a corporate patron of the arts, and in his commitment to progressive design. Second, the wider perception of poster art was transformed from being viewed as an economical means of advertisement, to an art form worthy of review in and of itself (9). Although Pick maintained the primary purpose of the posters was one of public relations and advertisement, he also realized that “every passenger is a potential critic; many passengers are dynamic ones” (9).
(1) Heller, Steven. “Edward Tenner, philosopher of everyday things.” Print 58.1 (2004): 38-120. Business Source Premier. EBSCO. Web. 17 Sept. 2011.
(2) Hadlaw, Janin. “The London Underground Map: Imagining Modern Time and Space.” Design Issues 19.1 (2003): 25-35. Art Full Text. Web. 16 Sep. 2011.
(3) “The London Underground Map.” Print 65.4 (2011): 108. Education Research Complete. EBSCO. Web. 16 Sept. 2011.
(4) Rosoff, Margaret. “’Art for the people’.” Print May-June 1997: 78+. InfoTrac Vocation, Careers & Technical Education. Web. 17 Sep. 2011.
(5) Kono, Eiichi. “New Johnston.” Pen to Printer. Pages 36-42. Web. 17 Sept. 2011.
(6) The Eric Gill Society. “Eric Gill Biography.” The Eric Gill Society, n.d. Web. 17 Sept. 2011. <http://www.ericgill.org.uk/Gill/>
(7) Harrod, Tanya. “ TYPOGRAPHY / The writing on the wall: Tanya Harrod looks at the importance of lettering, in the light of a new exhibition at Portsmouth.” The Independent (October 10, 1989). LexisNexis Academic. Web. 17 Sept. 2011.
(8) Heller, Steven ed. I Heart Design. Minneapolis, MN: Rockport Publishers, 2011. Print.
(9) Green, Oliver. “LONDON ILLUSTRATED: ART OF THE UNDERGROUND.” The Independent (December 7, 2003).
LexisNexis Academic. Web. 17 Sept. 2011.
(10) London Transport Museum. “The Golden Age of Poster Design.” 2010. Transport for London. 18 Sep. 2011.