Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

20 SEPTEMBER, 2013

What Makes Iconic Design: Lessons from the Visual History of the London Underground Logo


Celebrating 150 years of elegant balance between tradition and innovation.

The London Underground is renowned around the world for its iconic map, which has sprouted a number of creative derivatives and parodies, and its formidable legacy of graphic design. But most legendary and celebrated of all is its bar-and-circle logo — also known as the bulls-eye or the roundel — which celebrates its 150th birthday in 2013 and which is comparable only to an international icon like I♥NY.

From British publisher Laurence King — who previously brought us the impressive Saul Bass monograph, famous designers’ advice to students, and the fantastic series 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture, 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, and 100 Ideas That Changed Art — comes A Logo for London (public library), in which architecture and design historian David Lawrence traces the story of how the revered roundel came to be an international icon and an echelon of successful design. More than a mere trivia curiosity, its history reveals universal insight on the essential elements, principles, and decisions that make a piece of graphic design exceptional and enduring, part of a culture’s visual lexicon rather than mere commercial decoration.

‘Be punctual’ poster by Tom Eckersley, 1945.

Shortly after its origin, the roundel exploded onto every part of the transit system. By the early twentieth century, it infiltrated the burgeoning art of graphic design, populating publicity posters, brochures, and pamphlets. In doing so, 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 brand. Over the decades that followed, the logo both evolved and endured across redesigns, to emerge today as a family of symbols for various modes of transportation, united by clarity and common sensibility.

But why did the iconic logo take the shape it did? Lawrence takes us back to the anthropological intersection of symbolism and pragmatism:

When the first humans drew the sun, they inscribed a circle. When they sought to build and travel, objects with a circular form proved the most efficient aids. Direction finding produced circular compasses, and science called for circular lenses. Looking into the sky through these lenses, astronomers followed the ancients by drawing circular symbols for several planets and their positions: the sun’s center is shown as a circle horizontally bisected by a line. As a wheel, the circle symbolizes eternity and good luck; it appears in alchemy and magic. Given wings it traditionally represents safe travel, and has been used in this form for many transportation emblems.

Impression of the original Underground bar-and-disc symbol from a design of 1908, recreated in 1955 by former Underground officer W.H. Hilton.

The ultimate power of a logo, however, lies in transcending the immediacy of the brand itself and coming to represent its broader ecosystem — a product category, a city, a nation. That’s precisely what Lawrence reminds us makes the roundel so special:

Throughout its history, the bar and circle has been modern, but with a heritage; adaptable, but coherent; serious and fun. As new transport services come to London — with or without external sponsors, and below the streets or suspended by cables — so the bar-and-circle symbol continues to identify the system and is thereby reasserted as London’s brand. But isn’t this abstract device something else too? When it is seen in London, we know we are close to transportation services; in a global context it has become shorthand for the city itself. Rare for a device sponsored by an established organization, the logo is “cool” too. Such is its strength as a visual symbol of the city, the bar and circle has inspired other areas of culture such as fashion and pop music. … Beyond even this widespread understanding, the long association of the bar and circle with the word Underground has seen the symbol adopted unofficially to define ideas, activities and products as being in vogue, edgy, different. Its ability to be rapidly recognized in such contexts has seen it used on record album covers, badges, patches, posters, baseball caps and pretty much every form of memorabilia.

‘Eclipse of the Sun’, poster by Charles Sharland, 1912.

‘This week in London’, poster by Harry Beck, 1932.

‘This week in London’, poster by J.Z. Atkinson, 1933, carrying C.W. Bacon’s ‘LPTB’ symbol, and the bulls-eye as the man’s face.

It all began in the late nineteenth century when, amidst chaotic, crowded, and unregulated city streets — the same streets against which Babbage and Dickens waged a war on noise — London’s bus operators began using colored liveries and symbols to set their vehicles and services apart from those of others. As the Anglo-French London General Omnibus Company — London’s leading operator of bus services, established in 1855 — began transitioning from the horse to the internal combustion engine, it became evident that the colors and symbols on the vehicles needed an upgrade as well. A semi-anonymous man, recorded in history as only “Mr. Crane,” designed a spoked bus wheel embellished with wings and crossed by a bar with the word “General” on it, which was inspired by the Greek myth of Hermes, god of travel and messenger of the gods. And so the first bar-and-circle symbol was born.

‘Underground theatres’ by Verney L. Danvers, 1926.

‘And all for a season ticket on London’s Underground’ by Frederick Charles Herrick, 1925.

The symbol continued to evolve and, when World War I ended in 1918, the flourishing of design and printed ephemera ushered in a new era of communication arts, catapulting the roundel onto the particularly fashionable medium of posters. (Those came to have a pictorial history iconic in its own right.) The roundel aligned itself with cultural change beyond the evolution of design itself.

'A woman’s job in war’ poster 1941.

‘Back room boys, they also serve: power control’ poster by Fred Taylor 1942.

But arguably most instrumental in the development of the logo was Edward Johnston, hired as a consultant for London Transport in the 1920s, who drew the initial logotypes and bar-and-circle devices that laid the foundation for the Underground’s family of trademarks.

Drawing of the proportions for Edward Johnston's roundel, ca. 1925.

By the Second World War, the roundel was very much an institution, one actively enlisted in propaganda and boosting national morale. Its posters and pamphlets addressed one of the period’s most pressing issues impacting civilians: the blackout — a government-mandated limit on light emissions by buildings, street lamps, and vehicles at night. Intended to confuse enemy aircraft, the blackout also made travel difficult — so the roundel came to the rescue, leaping onto a special series of PSA safety posters.

‘Inside it’s bright, outside it’s dark’ by James Fitton, 1941.

‘In the blackout: A flashing torch is dangerous’ by Bruce Angrave, 1942.

(Angrave’s aesthetic is strikingly reminiscent of Tom Gentleman’s vintage British road safety posters from the same era.)

As the Mad Men era peeked on the horizon, the role of publicity and advertising became even more apparent, and London Transport hired a seasoned ad man, Harold F. Hutchison, to take charge of the organization’s visual identity. Lawrence writes:

Through his work as Publicity Officer, Hutchinson would position the organization as the pre-eminent face of London, alongside the Houses of Parliament, royalty, the London policeman and the red telephone box. … Every object, place and activity would bear the bar-and-circle mark. Caught up with the spirit of post-war reform, and working with a new generation of artists and designers, he had a clear ambition to change the public face of London Transport. With hindsight, it can be appreciated that Hutchison steered a difficult course between modernity and tradition in order to attract, enthrall and inform visitors and citizens, to entice shoppers and deter rush-hour travelers, and to promote city and country.

Leaflet promoting modern architectural achievements such as office blocks, housing estates and schools across the capital, published 1960. This outline form of the bar-and-circle saw increased use in the period 1966–1971.

Posters from the series ‘The Proud City’ by Walter E. Spradbery (1944) were printed in Arabic and Farsi. ‘St Paul’s Cathedral’ (Arabic version).

Posters from the series ‘The Proud City’ by Walter E. Spradbery (1944) were printed in Arabic and Farsi. ‘The Temple Church and library after bombardment’ (Farsi version)

The roundel, Lawrence argues, was instrumental in ushering in the cultural shift that made the world aware of design as a cultural practice after the 1970s — a practice that infiltrated the everyday through punk rock, fashion, and graphics. As “commercial artists” became “graphic designers,” they crept into the public eye as celebritiestypographers, magazine art directors, and album cover artists. In other words, design became a sensemaking mechanism for the man-made world, and the roundel had been there all along, to witness and facilitate this change.

Lawrence concludes:

Originally intended to identify the transport network of a private organization, the bar-and-circle symbol has, over a century, become part of, and a shorthand for, the personality of London, as a city and world center of social, political and cultural activity.

‘Around stretches the vast expanse of the world’ by Simon and Tom Bloor from the '100 Years, 100 Artists, 100 Works of Art' project celebrating the centennial of the roundel.

A Logo for London details the fascinating story of that process — a timeless allegory full of lessons on what makes successful, enduring, truly iconic design. Complement it with the pictorial history of the London Underground’s graphic legacy.

Images courtesy of Laurence King

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19 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Milton Glaser on Art, Technology, and the Secret of Life


“You learn more and more that everything exists at once with its opposite, so the contradictions of life are never-ending and somehow the mediation between these opposites is the game of life.”

Few things today are truly iconic, but the I♥NY logo is among them. Its beloved creator, the inimitable Milton Glaser — who also co-founded New York Magazine in 1968, and who is one of my most beloved creative and spiritual heroes — is an icon in his own right: often considered the greatest graphic designer alive, a remarkable educator who has shaped lives for more than half a century, a man of uncommon wisdom on art, integrity, and the kindness of the universe. In this beautiful and wide-ranging interview from The Good Life Project, Glaser offers an unprecedented tour of his magnificent mind and singular spirit. Transcribed highlights below.

On where the seed of his creativity originates:

I have no idea where it comes from. The thing that I do know is that after a while, you begin to realize, A) how little you know about everything and, B) how vast the brain is and how it encompasses everything you can imagine — but, more than that, everything you can’t imagine. What is perhaps central to this is the impulse to make things, which seems to me to be a primary characteristic of human beings — the desire to make things, whatever they turn out to be. And then, supplementary to that, is the desire to create beauty — which is a different but analogous activity. So, the urge to make things is probably a survival device; the urge to create beauty is something else — but only apparently something else, because, as we know, there are no unrelated events in human experience.

Glaser echoes Tolstoy’s timeless conception of art as a mechanism of human connection and Robert Henri’s notion of art as a brotherhood of mankind, reminding us that the creative impulse is integral to what makes us human:

There is something about making things beautiful, and we sometimes call that art, that has something to do with creating a commonality between human beings so that they don’t kill each other. And whatever that impulse is, and wherever it comes from, it certainly is contained within every human being. … Sometimes, the opportunity to articulate it occurs; sometimes, it remains dormant for a lifetime.

On his own unrelenting expression of that profound human characteristic:

I imagined myself as a maker of things from the age of five. I realized that to make something was miraculous, and I never stopped.

Recounting the formative moment in which he awakened to art, when his older cousin drew a bird for little Milton on the side of a paper bag and it suddenly came alive for the young boy, Glaser reflects:

I suddenly realized that you could create life — that you could create life with a pencil and a brown paper bag — and it was truly a miracle in my recollection. Although people are always telling me that memory is just a device to justify your present, it was like I received the stigmata and I suddenly realized that you could spend your life inventing life. And I never stopped since — at five, my course was set. I never deviated, I never stopped aspiring or working in a way that provided the opportunity to make things that, if you did right, moved people.

On how being the “class artist” in his childhood, constantly creating on-demand drawings for his friends, shaped his sense of purpose and belonging:

I always saw myself as being a facilitator of other people’s needs, in that very primitive way. I liked the fact that I had status, I had a position in life, and I could also be of service. … That designation was a useful one to me in terms of developing my own sense of who I was.

The story of “how 20 seconds can change your life” he relays at 12:22 is an extraordinary testament to the power a single moment of kindness has in profoundly changing another human being’s life:

When I was in junior high school, I had the opportunity to take the entrance examination to either Bronx Science, which is a great New York school, or the High School of Music and Art, another great school. … And I had a science teacher who was very encouraging for me to enter into science — I was very good at science — and he wanted me to go to Bronx Science. And I was evasive about that, because I didn’t want to tell him that it ain’t gonna happen.

But the day of the entrance exam — they occurred on the same day — I took the entrance examination to the High School of Music and Art. And the next day I came into school, he was in the hallway as I was walking down, and he said, “I want to talk to you.” I said, “Uh-oh — the jig is up, he’s going to find out I took the ‘wrong’ exam.” He said, “Come to my office… Sit down.” And, as I was sitting there, he said, “I hear you took the exam for Music and Art.” And I said, “Um, yes.” And then he reached over, and he reached into his desk, and he pulled out a box of French Conté crayons — a fancy, expensive box — and he gave it to me, and he said, “Do good work.”

I can’t tell that story without crying, because it was such a profound example of somebody — an adult, authority figure, sophisticated man — who was willing to put aside his own desire for something, his own direction for my life, and recognize me as a person who had made a decision. And he was, instead of simply acknowledging it, encouraging it with this incredibly gracious and generous gift. … The thing about it that always astonishes you is that moment — it couldn’t have taken more than two minutes — was totally transformative about my view of life, my view of others, my view of education, my view of acknowledging the other.

Echoing Joss Whedon’s fantastic Wesleyan commencement address on embracing our inner contradictions, Glaser reminds us that the art of life is not in choosing between opposites but in reconciling them:

You learn more and more that everything exists at once with its opposite, so the contradictions of life are never-ending and somehow the mediation between these opposites is the game of life.

Much like philosopher Daniel Dennett argued that “the chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself,” Glaser counsels that the first step to making better life choices is acknowledging the bad ones you’ve made, and drawing cultivates mindfulness and the essential art of seeing that doing that necessitates:

The first step is always, in the Buddhist sense, to acknowledge what is — and that’s very hard to do. But, incidentally, drawing — and attentiveness — is one of the ways you do that. The great benefit of drawing … is that when you look at something, you see it for the first time. And you can spend your life without ever seeing anything.

On how welcoming the unknown helps us live more richly and why we should try to, as Rilke put it, “live the questions” and cultivate the “negative capability” that Keats insisted was essential to creativity:

I can sound as though I know the answers to these things — I don’t know the answer to anything. You have to constantly be attentive to what you deflect in life, and what you pay attention to, and all the things that you can’t see, and all the preconceptions that you do have about everything. Those preconceptions basically blur your vision — it’s very hard to see what’s in front of you.

On how technology is changing us:

Everything changes everything. There are no independent events. … The virtual world has created a very different kind of nervous system for people who spend their lives in that world. And it produces different sets of appropriateness — of time, of morality, of ethics, of behavior. … [But] we don’t know what this is doing to the human psyche or the human behavior or any of it — we know it’s changing, we know it’ll be a profound change and it won’t be what it was, but we don’t know what the nature of that will finally be. It will probably have some benefits and significant drawbacks, but it is just emerging. [We] are creating a new kind of person.

On how we can ensure technology enhances rather than enslaves us:

The computer is dangerous because it shapes your capacity to understand what’s possible. The computer is like an apparently submissive servant that turns out to be a subversive that ultimately gains control of your mind. The computer is such a powerful instrument that it defines, after a while, what is possible for you. And what is possible is within the computer’s capacity. And while it seems in the beginning like this incredibly gifted and talented servant actually has a very limited intelligence — the brain is so much vaster than the computer. But, the computer is very insistent about what it’s good at, and before you know it — it’s like being with somebody who has bad habits, you sort of fall into the bad habits — and it begins to dominate the way you think about what is possible. … [Counter this] by doing things that are uncomfortable for it to do.

On always harnessing the gift of ignorance and never ceasing to expand oneself:

Professional life is very often antithetical to artistic life, because in professional life you basically repeat what you already know — your previous successes. It’s like marketing — marketing is the enemy of art, because it is always based on the past — not that art is always based on the future, but it’s very often based on transgression. So when you do something that basically is guaranteed to succeed, you’re closing the possibility for discovery.

Reflecting on art education and the cultural tension between art and business, Glaser adds to history’s finest definitions of art:

You have to separate making a living … from enlarging one’s understanding of the world, and also … providing an instrumentality for people to have a common purpose and a sense of transformation. … That is what the arts provide — the sense of enlargement, and the sense that you haven’t come to the end of your understanding, either of yourself or of other things.

Echoing Maira Kalman, who herself echoed Freud when she said that “in the end … it’s love and it’s work — what else could there possibly be?,” Glaser ends by reflecting on the meaning of life:

The things that I think are important [for a good life]: the friendships that I have with people I love; a marriage that has endured and continues to endure; teaching, which I’ve been doing for well over half a century; and feeling that whatever you know has a possibility of being transmitted and shared.

Complement with this superb interview with Glaser from How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer and Glaser’s own 2008 classic, Drawing Is Thinking.

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04 SEPTEMBER, 2013

The Provensens’ Gorgeous Vintage Illustrations of Aesop’s Fables


Timeless visual exorcism of our greatest moral shortcomings, bridging antiquity and today.

Predating both Arabian Nights and the Grimm fairy tales by centuries, the fables of Aesop, an ancient Greek slave and storyteller who lived between 620 and 560 BCE, endure as some of humanity’s most influential narratives. “He made use of humble incidents to teach great truths,” wrote the Greek philosopher Philostratus of Aesop, and indeed these fables explore the most complex facets of human morality and its failings — deceit, greed, vanity, impatience, egotism, cowardice — through seemingly simple stories featuring animal protagonists. The fables themselves weren’t recorded in writing during Aesop’s lifetime and how exactly they made their way from ancient Greece to world domination remains uncertain. Though the core morality tales have endured over the centuries, the stories have been retold and reimagined over and over, and among the most magical aspects of their constant reinvention has been the art that has accompanied them.

There is hardly a more wonderful, or better-matched, visual take on the tales than that by Alice and Martin Provensen, whose gift for translating history’s greatest storytelling into visual magic spans from Homer to classic fairy tales to William Blake.

In 1965, nearly a decade after their adaptation of the Iliad and Odyssey, they illustrated Louis Untermeyer’s version of Aesop’s Fables (public library) — sadly, another ghost from the cemetery of out-of-print gems, but one summoned back to life here for a new round of admiration and appreciation, thanks to my own surviving copy of the magnificent tome and some generous friends’ large-format scanner. From The Boy Who Cried Wolf to The Fox and the Grapes to The Tortoise and the Hare to The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs, these familiar, beloved tales shine with uncommon warmth and wisdom under the Provensens’ vibrant touch and expressive elegance.

Aesop’s Fables is sublime in its entirety, and the few remaining copies still findable online and off are very much worth the scavenger hunt.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.