I just returned from the AGI conference in London. While there, I was reminded of two things. One, the UK (or perhaps specifically London) appears to care, engage with and value design far, far more than any American city — New York and San Francisco included. And, two, the Underground logo is perhaps my favorite of all time.
The roundel, as it is known, was designed at the turn of the last century and first appeared in 1908. In that early iteration the red circle was a solid disk. The blue crossbar was used as a container for the station name. The combination of these two elements helped distinguish the signage from the surrounding advertising which at that time papered the walls in a dense and cacophonous fashion. In 1917 Edward Johnston completed his typeface commission* for the Underground and redesigned the roundel to accommodate its new proportions, in the process updating the solid disk to a bisected ring. That logo endures to this day.
More than just a logo, the roundel is the hero of a flexible identity system. It is used in its simplest form to identify tube stops. In these instances it presents the straightforward legend, “Underground”.
Inside the system, it identifies each station by replacing “underground” with the name of the stop, as seen in the Baker Street image above (for evidence of how much I love this logo, my oldest son is named for the Baker Street tube stop!). It is also used for instructional signage such as “mind the gap” and “no smoking” — advisories that carry with them the authority assigned to this century-old logo.
On directories and other materials the roundel becomes an element of information design; the outer ring is allowed to change color to indicate the different lines, as depicted on the famed London Underground Map.
Outside the system an all-red roundel indicates bus stops, while an all-blue version is used as the corporate mark. A distinct but visually similar logo identifies the National Rail Service.
For more on the history and allure of this perfect logo, check out the following:
*The typeface for the London Underground is Johnston Sans and not, as many believe, Gill Sans. Eric Gill was Johnston’s protégé and went on to design the very similar looking Gill Sans. Gill Sans is practically the official typeface of England, defining the voice of everything from Penguin Books, to the British Railway to the BBC.