Sign of the times

deco train signTravelling back through Exeter on route to Buxton recently I encountered this wonderful sign. Made of ceramic tiles and no doubt dating from the station’s 1938 face lift, its Deco styling was a pleasure to encounter. In this age of standardisation I was taken by its blatant non conformity and the contrast with what we now expect of railway brand identity.

It harks back to an age of conflicting branding, de-centralisation and signage chaos and reminded me that its 100 years since Frank Pick one of the creators of the iconic London Transport roundel commissioned designer Edward Johnston to come up with a new typeface to be used on signage throughout the system.  The Johnston typeface, albeit slightly tweaked can still be seen across the London transport network and It remains one of the best examples of clarity and uniformity in transport signage.

london underground font

On the main line however we had to wait a bit longer for such conformity to develop. It came with the Gill Sans sans-serif typeface designed by Eric Gill and released by the British branch of Monotype from 1928 onwards. Gill was commissioned to develop his design into a full metal type family by Stanley Morison, an influential Monotype executive who hoped that it could be a competitor to a wave of German sans-serif fonts in a new “geometric” style which were getting considerable attention in Germany during the latter 1920s. Gill took inspiration from Edward Johnston’s 1916 “Underground Alphabet” blending it with classic serif typefaces and Roman inscriptions to create a design that looked both cleanly modern and classical at the same time. It was an immediate success, and in 1929 the London and North Eastern Railway chose it for all its posters, timetables and publicity material, a use later extended across all British railways. It also soon became used on the covers of Penguin books, where many of its fans including myself first encountered it.

british railwaysbritish railways gill sans

However my all-time railway signage favourite has to be the British Rail symbol, still used by National rail. Designed by Gerald Barney just over 50 years ago it was a revelation in rail branding becoming the symbol of a new era for rail travel in post Beeching Britain.

british rail.jpg

It is said to have begun as a sketch on the back of an envelope done whilst he was on the tube and ended up the showpiece of the rebranding exercise that started when BR management wished to divest the organisation of traditional, heraldic motifs and develop a corporate identity to rival that of London Transport. Led by Milner Gray of the Design Research Unit, they drew up a Corporate Identity Manual which established a coherent brand and design standard for the whole organisation, specifying Rail Blue and pearl grey as the standard colour scheme for all rolling stock and introducing the ubiquitous Rail Alphabet designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert as the standard corporate typeface. It is still used today by some operators, British airports, and the Danish railways [DSB] although it has been replaced by Helvetica Medium as the industry’s preferred typeface for safety notices within passenger trains due its availability and for consistency with British Standards safety signage. However in an age where once again we are confronted by a multitude of brands each with their own conflicting identity it is, at least in my mind, a sad loss.rail logos

Jason Holmes

Head of Design Textiles

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