What Makes London's Underground Logo So Special?

Design historian David Lawrence's new book explores its history and how it came to be synonymous with the city it serves.

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London Transport

Few public transit logos are as instantly recognizable as the bar and disc used by Transport for London. 

The logo first emerged in 1905. It debuted as a bar crossing through a wheel with wings, symbolic of the city's newly motorized buses.  A more refined version, similar to the one we're familiar with today, debuted at Underground stations three years later as an attempt to make station names easier to recognize on ad-covered platforms. It was dubbed the "roundel" in 1972.

David Lawrence, a design history lecturer at Kingston University, dove into the roundel's rich history for a new book, A Logo For London. In it, Lawrence explores the creation and evolution of the symbol, richly illustrated with over a century's worth of pocket schedules, signs, artwork, and the copy cats it inspired. We asked him about the roundel, why it matters, and what it means to London:

What kind of reaction did Londoners have to the roundel at first?

There is very little record of what Londoners thought of the symbol at first. Journalists did observe that the new signs were part of a massive modernization program on the Underground, and appreciated the consistency and coherence that the roundel provided in its role as station sign. An artist like Walter Sickert would feature a similar sign in his paintings, and popular postcards began to include the symbol to readily identify the subject of their illustration.

"This week in London" poster by Harry Beck, 1932



When did its influence start to trickle down to transit agencies or corporations in other cities and countries?

The Underground was a consultant to many world metro systems, and its management team had interests in transportation across the empire/commonwealth. Consequently, by the 1930s we see the symbol adapted for systems in France and Spain, and by the 1950s for systems in New Zealand, Cuba and the Indian sub-continent.

Many commercial organizations 'borrowed' the blue and red colors and bar/circle form for their own trademarks, and this 'borrowing' was not vigorously policed until much later - it was generally seen as a form of compliment to the Underground's good design. 

Left: The bar and circle are rendered in three dimensions as a planet in a poster designed by Man Ray, 1938. Right: "Simply Fashion by Tube and Bus" poster by Trickett and Webb, 1999

Harold Hutchison's hiring in 1947 as London Transport's publicity officer seemed to be a pretty important moment in the agency's design history. What made his era so critical to the way we see the roundel today?

Hutchison was a man from the commercial world of advertising, in contrast to his peers and forerunners who were Cambridge graduates and railwaymen.

Hutchison had a taste for flamboyant experiment, and he had a considerable budget. These factors enabled him to commission considerable amounts of graphic design and artworks to promote London Transport and the Underground at a time when the system was expanding considerably and taking the metropolis with it - new tubes, new suburbs, new towns on the periphery. All needed publicity and signs to identify facilities, and the roundel was central to the story.

"The Seen" pair poster by James Fitton, 1948

London Transport's branding, especially after looking through your book, seems incredibly thorough. Was there ever a period where it seemed almost overboard? 

The Hutchison period was when it seemed to go overboard. The roundel was put to a myriad different uses and in danger of overuse. But it did succeed in embedding the symbol in the consciousness of anyone thinking about London as the city and capital - the effects of this we see around the world today in homages and references to London and British popular culture. 

Have there been times where people suggested a more diverse range of logos for different types of services?

In 1933, and again circa 1986, there were attempts to introduce different symbols to supplant the roundel, but in both cases the visual strength of the roundel prevailed and these attempts lasted less than a year in each case.

The present 'family' of roundels in different colors for different transport modes represents the necessary diversity of uses, without straying far from the original conception. The colors available are limited only by issues of visibility, differentiation, and manufacturing constraints (certain pigments are very expensive or perform poorly).

The roundel has been adapted to all sorts of non-London Transport related imagery. What's the oddest adaptation of the logo you've ever come across? The most impressive one?

A very odd, and totally proscribed adaptation, was for a condom brand, where the roundel represented the female reproductive organs. There's also a logo for 'Feminism in London 2013.'  The most impressive one? Milliner Stephen Jones produced a beautiful hat design based on the red/blue roundel, and I like the logo for 'A Salt and Battery' fish restaurant in New York City. 

Appropriations of the bar and circle from around the world

So many public agencies and corporations have their own, very thorough, visual identity today that we may not appreciate or even notice what makes London Transport's noteworthy. What do you hope the average person recognizes or appreciates about the roundel?

It would be nice to think the average Londoner has a sense that this single symbol has come to be one of the most pure and unique symbols representing a city, and a citizenry, anywhere in the world - thus it is the heritage and the culture of every Londoner. I hope my book has gone some way to communicating this observation.

A Logo for London was released last month through Laurence King Publishing

Top image: Drawing of the proportions for Edward Johnston's roundel c. 1925

All images courtesy the London Transport Museum archives and Laurence King Publishing.

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