There is a lot to hate about London: everything is slightly too expensive, everyone is slightly too pretentious and everywhere that used to be interesting has now become slightly too boring. But then saying that, there’s a whole lot about London to love: it’s energy, culture and on the most part, it’s efficiency. The London Underground, or as everyone under 40 years old calls it, the Tube, is one of the hallmarks of London’s said efficiency. It may not feel like it at 8.27am on a Tuesday morning when you have to wedge yourself into what smells and feels like a human version of a moist, undercooked Rustler burger, but the Tube is actually a landmark piece of design and engineering envied and replicated the world over.
And it’s not just it’s fast, punctual and aromatic trains that set the benchmark for what a modern metropolitan public transport should be. The London Underground has a concerted visual character that runs throughout it’s sprawling network: via maps, fonts, logos and art work, what should essentially just be a faceless public service has acquired a unique image and personality, one that is as instantly recognisable as any brand in the world.
In 1906 a dude named Frank Pick joined Transport For London (TFL), or as it was catchily known back then the ‘Underground Electric Railways Company of London’. It was Pick who gave the Tube it’s unique graphic design. He commissioned typographer Edward Johnston to create the classic Tube font (now called Johnston Sans) and blue and red ‘roundel’ station signs that are so prevalent and recognisable throughout the network, as well as introduce Harry Beck’s elegantly colour coded map design. All three of these visual characteristics are still used in a modified form today, and are as synonymous with London as the the McDonald’s ‘M’ is for fast food and and the front page of the Daily Mail is for conceited fascism.
But more than just being a great public service, the Tube has also, either subliminally or overtly, influenced London, the U.K and the world in terms of fashion, art and visual design.There have been numerous artists, brands and independent labels that have used the Tube’s designs as a starting point for clothes, artwork and jewellery.
For example Nike have done not one but two collaborations with Roundel London, a clothing label that is solely inspired by Tube based designs. The first was an Air Max 1 and 90 release that used the geometric District Line pattern created by Misha Black, and more recently a Nike Air Zoom Spiridon with the Johnston Sans font. Jupiter Desphy, a special projects footwear designer at Nike said:
“London was the first city to have an underground railway system and is a global cultural hub, so although these shoes are closely associated with the UK capital we think the collaborations resonate globally.”
For many outsiders coming into London, the Tube will be one of the first icons they see as they leave any given train station. Now we’re living in a post Brexit world, London will rely more and more heavily on foreign investment and tourism to take up the burden financially, and it will look to the global brand appeal of institutions like the Tube to keep people interested in the city. By reshaping the city’s branding into new ways like the Nike x Roundel collaborations it helps that appeal stay strong.
But closer to home, what is the appeal of what is essentially an underground railway to the average Londoner? I spoke to Will Rowly, founder of Done London, an independent clothing label that have been heavily inspired by Tube based designs.
“It's hard to put a finger on it. I’m a proud Londoner, and being into graffiti from my young teens lead me into appreciating the Underground” he tells me, “I felt like when I first made the decision to print the original 'Southbound' roundel logo tees, it really opened my eyes to the beautiful design and branding that the Tube holds and from the incredibly positive response to the tees I gathered it was shared by a lot of other people as well.”
Done London join Nike in a long list of clothing labels and brands that have drawn from the London Underground as inspiration when creating clothing, shoes and accessories. Whether it be jumpers inspired by the graffiti that adorns the Greater London railway network, hats with the garish seat patterns or jewellery the roundel logo, Londoners have always liked to wear their city with pride.
“The personal significance that the Tube designs become imbued with is what I find interesting,” Andrew Bunney, chief designer at Roundel London, explains “A vital part to what makes it iconic is how the design assets have been interacted with over time and in such a myriad of ways. For those from London, they can represent parts of their childhood, youth, significant moments in their life.”
“It’s about wanting to wear something that represents where you are from, that you can really connect with," adds Will, "Also the pattern work and clarity of the branding also lends itself very well to fashion led ideas.”
Perhaps what differentiates TFL from other monolithic brands is it’s desire to engage with independent companies and it’s willingness to let it’s designs be used by other labels, within reason. I remember when the NHS threatened legal action over the niche clothing label Sports Banger using the it’s logo for a t-shirt supporting the junior doctor strike. If anything the t-shirt made the rather bland NHS brand look quite good, but the public service were unwilling to allow it being re-marketed without it’s permission and the tees were stopped. Saskia Boersma, head of branding at TFL, has a different approach:
“I do very much believe in collaborating with really innovate design studios from all design disciplines regardless of whether they are established or emerging talent,” she notes, “My approach is very much to allow the designers the opportunity to create their own vision - great design never emerges when companies interfere relentlessly with the design process.”
Perhaps this forward thinking when it comes to it’s own brand and design process is what has kept the Tube so well endeared to the British and global public. I think perhaps they understand as a company that the their brand is bigger than them as a commercial entity. Obviously they will still look to make money from their copyright, but the Underground has been around so long and been so consistent with it’s branding that it has become apart of a shared London consciousness.
For me personally being born in north London and being an Arsenal fan, I’ve always felt a special bond with Finsbury Park station and the Victoria Line in general. I mean, it is the best line (let’s not lie to ourselves) it’s the fastest and goes the best places, i.e. Finsbury Park, Brixton, and all them ones in the middle there. But it also represents a lot of memories that I’ve had in London, travelling to see girlfriends, going to raves, watching Arsenal lose, but more simply: home.
“London has always had a love affair with the tube, its impact on life in London is undeniable," Jon Hunter, head of design at TFL, explains, "The strength of its branding is evidenced through its longevity, it provides a constant, welcoming beacon during day or night, sun or rain. And some of its design DNA has inevitably been imprinted into the very soul of the people in that ride it.”
The Tube, like London, is by no means perfect. It stinks, is too hot, and when it's busy can perfectly encapsulate why everyone hates Londoners, i.e. they stink, are too hot, and are so highly strung that they would rather barge you out of the way to catch a train then wait literally half a minute for the next one.
But it's also pretty reliable, well run and probably the most beloved public transport system in the world, thanks in part to its groundbreaking visual personality. Like a lot of things in London too, stress, impatience and those black bogeys you find in your nose when you've been out in too much smog, the Tube creeps up on you gradually, subliminally becoming apart of your consciousness day by day from as far back as you can remember.
It's remarkable and revolutionary visual character is now how the large majority of London defines itself, and now more than ever you can find Londoners wearing it’s simple, bold colours in celebration of their heritage.
Written by: Tom Usher
Check out Done London's site here.