What Makes Iconic Design: Lessons from the Visual History of the London Underground Logo
Celebrating 150 years of elegant balance between tradition and innovation.
By Maria Popova
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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 celebrities — typographers, 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.
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.
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
Published September 20, 2013