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Design lessons from history


It’s easy to overlook the importance of design in successful communication.  Too often the value of an important piece of communication is lost through poor design.  If the audience is turned off by the presentation, they won’t get the message.  This maxim seems to be lost on today’s transport companies, but it hasn’t always been this way.

The celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the London Underground  concluded with a day of talks at the Victoria and Albert Museum with a heavy emphasis on London Transport in the 1930s and 40s under Frank Pick and Albert Stanley.  Perhaps surprisingly, many of the speakers chose not to focus on the aesthetics of the pioneering design work they inspired.  Instead, they concentrated on the commercial and operational rationale behind their decisions.

London Transport, under their leadership, earned a deserved reputation for leading edge marketing, especially poster design for the Underground.  It’s easy to forget that LT enjoyed no Government subsidies during this period so posters such as Edward McKnight Kauffer’s Winter Sales were designed to create demand for off-peak travel when the network had spare capacity.  Another famous example, No need to ask a p’liceman, by John Hassall, from a slightly earlier period, conveys the newly unified network’s key benefits of speed, low cost and coverage effectively.  Other posters were designed to generate demand for travel to major sporting events or tourist attractions.

12533048_sMany of aspects of brand identity that we now take for granted were also seen for the first time in mass transit environment.  While the story of the underground map is well known, it’s easy to forget now how pioneering the development of a corporate logo and a typeface specifically for London Transport was.  It’s a major testament to their design excellence that both are still in use nearly a century later.  This is in stark contrast to the situation in the national rail network.  Here, even agreeing a common approach to labelling the outside of First Class carriages is now beyond the industry’s ability.

But the emphasis on design and brand identify extended to every aspect of the transport network, often with the additional imperative of improving operational efficiency.  This reached a zenith with the tube stations of Charles Holden.  Even today, his stations read like a master class of commercial architecture, putting many current designs to shame. The buildings are spacious and well lit; the logo is prominently displayed and visible from a distance and there is convenient interchange for other transport modes.

In an era where it takes 16 pages just to describe the varieties of off-peak ticket available the transport industry might do well to return to Pick’s guiding philosophy – “the test of the goodness of a thing is its fitness for use. If it fails on this first test, no amount of ornamentation or finish will make it any better; it will only make it more expensive, more foolish.

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