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How Design Works on the Underground



Rob Hardy


This year is the sesquicentennial of the first subway line in London, the grandfather of all subway systems. There have been countless technological changes since then, and the system has become huge with connections all over the city and outside of it. The changes in technology are a mere side issue within London Underground by Design (Penguin Books) by subway enthusiast Mark Ovenden. His subject is the look and design of trains, stations, maps, signage, and more. It is a comprehensive survey with capsule biographies of the planners and designers through the decades, and it fittingly has hundreds of pictures covering all aspects of the system's design. People take over a billion trips on the system every year; engines and cars do the work, of course, but Ovenden shows that matters of design are far from superficial, and that they make the system work more efficiently. It isn't a new lesson, that good design makes for an esthetic appeal as well as increasing job effectiveness, but it is vibrantly displayed here. 




The Tube system grew from the first underground run by the Metropolitan Railway. (Through the decades that the system was made up of competing lines rather than being one network, "The Met" kept up a strong sense of independence.) It had plenty of engineering firsts, rightly celebrated, but Ovenden suggests that even then there was some thought to the look of the stations, which were of an overall Italianate design. Each station had a an iron and glass canopy over the main entrance. Passengers might not have noticed similarity of style unless they were looking for it, but it was there. One common factor was the large transparent spheres that contained gas lights, the same inside and out for every station. The globes may have been identical only to save money, Ovenden points out, but it was nonetheless a coherent style. 




Coherence was not a characteristic of signage, one of the most important aspects of design covered here. Since sans-serif letterforms were introduced early in the nineteenth century, they found usefulness within posters and handbills, and from the beginning they were the letters of choice for the Met and its competing lines, as well as for transport systems in New York and Paris. This was at a time when display type for other uses, like for ads for the Underground or for map covers, was increasingly exuberant and fanciful. Such letters were found as names on the station fronts made in the Arts and Crafts style of the early twentieth century, often standing out in gold from the oxblood tiles that encased the station. These stations are still hallmarks of design. The sans-serif letters on signs, however, had little unity, and as shown in many pictures here, were overwhelmed by commercial bills and posters. Everything changed when Frank Pick, Commercial Manager of the Underground and a hero in these pages for his emphasis on efficient design, commissioned Edward Johnston in 1913 to come up with a typeface to be used throughout the system. Johnston's creation, now known as Johnston Sans, has been a foundation of Underground design ever since. It can be spotted by its perfectly circular O and the slight fancy of a diagonal square dot over the i and the j. It has been slightly tweaked over the decades, including a version that can be used in books. Transport for London retains rights for the typeface, and has allowed it to be used in this very book. 




Graphic design is on display perhaps most famously in the tube maps. The maps were originally issued by the different independent lines, and each tended to put other lines in the background if they included them at all. The first overall Underground map was issued in 1908, with each line having a different color. The map was superimposed on a map of the city, and the lines were shown with geographic accuracy. This was the way all maps of the system were issued until an amateur had a better idea. Harry Beck was an engineering, not cartographic, draughtsman at the Underground Signals Office. He was fascinated by maps of the system, and thought deeply about ways the maps might be made clearer. His ideas, novel and sound, he worked out on his own time as sort of a hobby. The central portion of his map, the city center itself, was exaggerated in size, so that all its stations, relatively close to each other, could be seen distinctly. Conversely, the suburban stations were set close together. Not only did this enable the whole system to be legible on a simple card, it was social engineering at a time when residential expansion outside the city was being favored; living out on the limbs of the Underground did not really seem distant. Beck used a symbolic cartography, with train lines and even the Thames flowing horizontally, vertically, or at 45 degree angles only. The lines were in different colors, of course, but they were only loosely set within true geographical positions; what was important was how the lines were oriented and connected among themselves, not the streetscape where people would emerge from them. Beck submitted his idea to the publicity department in 1931; he knew how good an idea it was, and was shocked when it was rejected. He was persistent, resubmitted, and in 1933 card maps and posters were printed. Not only has his map been used ever since, other subway systems around the world have drawn themselves using Beck's style as a guide. 




Like any sensible firm, the Underground has paid special attention to its advertisements, the posters set around the station. Reproduced here are many classic ones, posters that are bestsellers at the London Transport Museum; people are ready to frame these and hang them on their walls, which is not what usually happens to advertisements. The pictures of posters in the book are often too small (they are, after all, supposed to be the size of posters), but you can find here the witty one by Man Ray showing the analogy between the roundel symbol of the Underground and the planet Saturn with its rings, and the classic "The Tate Gallery by Tube," showing each of the lines as a noodle of color squeezed from a tube of artist's paint. There are posters from 95 years ago that still apply, like one advising passengers who have entered a car to move along away from the door: "Think of the others. A door obstructor is a selfish person." For over a hundred years the Underground has used pictures of silhouettes in its advertising, skylines showing the dome of St. Paul's, Nelson's column, and so on. The new ones shown here might include those classic sights, but also show the arc of the Ferris wheel and the bullet-shaped "Gherkin" building. 




The largest review of station buildings presented here are the suburban ones built from 1930 to 1945. They are inspired by buildings that Pick and his architect Charles Holden saw on a tour of Europe. Though Holden jokingly referred to them as "brick boxes with concrete lids," they are rationalist in style and have handsome towers and rotundas, with art deco lamps and seating. Included here are pictures of the new Canary Wharf station, inspired by the same "rationalist" school. It is all glass and brushed metal, and it looks futuristic and sleek, fit for the twenty-first century. 




There are sections here on the history of the roundel, the famous blue bar over a red ring that has become the symbol of London Transport, and on the "wordmark" of the enlarged initial and final letter in "UndergrounD." There are descriptions of intelligent signage experiments, where paper signs were tested and found functional before permanent enamel signs were installed. There are many descriptions of how design contributed to "wayfinding," scientific studies of passenger flow and decision making by passengers as they sought the right trains. There are pictures to show how the cars themselves have evolved, or how particular stations are decorated. The book represents in a fascinating way how after 150 years and revolutionary technological changes, the Underground presents a confident corporate identity because it has achieved a useful unity of design in many of its diverse enterprises. 




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