Saturday, 22 March 2008

London Transport Aesthetic

Transport for London gave me one of these the other day. Inside was a bike light. It has no batteries but in Trevor Baylis style is wind-up. I think it was part of a campaign of caring for cyclists, because I also read they were giving out Fresnel lenses, which let truckers see cyclists more easily and there has been quite a bit of TV advertising, including a moonwalking gorilla.

Anyway, I like the box. Although on this occasion it's minimalism is probably borne out of frugality, it made me wonder about the the whole aesthetic of Transport for London, something I have long loved.

The original red, white and blue roundel and font (Johnston Sans) by Edward Johnston has remained largely unchanged since he designed it in 1918. It's arguably the logo most synonymous with London (in fact most of the main images of London are to do with the transport system: the street names, the taxi, the buses...) and has spawned all sorts of lovely sister logos as the network expanded:

(from Wikipedia)

Then there's the electrical circuit style map designed by Harry Beck in 1933 (inspired by George Dow). This is a masterful piece of work which despite jettisoning geographical truth (probably as a result) enables the most effortless understanding of its contents.

The design coherence of the London transport system was directed under the keen and meticulous eye of Frank Pick. He is rumoured to have travelled the entire network, often at night, to ensure high standards (reminds me of another design fanatic, Steve Jobs, who is reputed to have had fine Italian marble for a New York first Apple store to be sent to California first so he could check the veining).

Pick visited Europe and returned under the influence of "European modernism" which prompted the installation of then achingly modern architecture, including "sweeping curves with geometric detailing, exposed brickwork and concrete" (Design Museum). Even in new designs this exposed, progressive spirit is still part of the visual language, like the recent and industrially beautiful Westminster Tube Station.

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