London Underground: 150 years of iconic design


Owen McAleer

Research Executive

Categories Uncategorized

The London Underground has always had a considered approach to design, evident in its unchanged image

This year, the London Underground (well, parts of it) turned 150. It is the oldest underground railway in the world and is still going strong. The system itself is marveled at around the globe for its age, size and in particular its considerate approach to design; from station architecture to the hundreds of intricately woven seat covers, the London Underground has a special relationship with design.

The Underground has been investing in design since 1913, and in particular, has given special attention to their typeface. Frank Pick, (commercial manager at the time) commissioned Edward Johnston to create the (now) iconic sans-serif masterpiece. Pick specified to Johnston that he wanted a typeface which would ensure that the Underground Group’s posters would not be mistaken for advertisements. It was required to have “the bold simplicity of the authentic lettering of the finest periods” and belong “unmistakably to the twentieth century”.

Johnston Sans-serif font
Johnston Sans-serif font

Johnston’s font was designed to have clean, sharp lines in order to be read quickly and easily by the fast-paced, frenetic commuters of London town. The font was used on all Underground communications including the roundel –  ‘born’ shortly before in 1908. It has remained largely unchanged until 2002, when the font was digitised and renamed “New Johnston TFL” which cemented its connection with London Transport.

A somewhat more tangible example of The Underground’s conscious input into design is its tube stations. Charles Holden is the architect responsible for some of the beautiful stations we pass through today, many of which were designed in the early 1920s.

Classic 1920s station architecture in South Wimbledon
Classic 1920s station architecture in South Wimbledon

The era’s stations are known for their towering double-height ticket halls, Portland stone facades and large glazed screens emblazoned with the Underground’s roundel. Even today, these simple, modernist structures act as street level beacons to The Underground, individually designed to be in keeping with their surroundings.

New look stations from the 1930s
New look stations from the 1930s



But, the Underground is not afraid to adapt and change, and the stations built in the 1930s  were designed to be different. The structures progressed with the times by employing a distinctly European influence. They used a combination of red brick and glass to form vast cylinders, sweeping curves and robust rectangles whilst always giving the iconic roundel pride of place.

The roundel has not been modified a great deal since its inception, proving that a simple design (like the Johnston font) that applies equal weight to both form and function can stand the test of time and remain relevant.

To pay homage to the roundel, the Art on the Underground initiative have used this year’s sesquicentennial (which is the correct way to refer to 150 years, don’t you know) celebration of the tube to emphasise the roundel and its important role in The Underground’s history.

The Art on the Underground initiative aims to provide “a world-class programme of contemporary art that enriches the Tube environment and [our] customers’ journey experience; and continues the long-standing tradition that excellent art and design is at the core of London Underground’s identity and services”.

100 artists from all over the world have been commissioned to redesign the roundel (a daunting task for any designer), however, the artists were encouraged to experiment with the design. This made for some interesting interpretations, which are currently on display on the exterior of Southwark Tube station.

Submissions: James Ireland - Pen and Tape, Jaime Gili - A150 Anjos, Torsten Lauschmann - Balaclava & Sweatband, Ross Finn-Kelcey – untitled, Declan Clarke – Let.
Submissions: James Ireland – Pen and Tape, Jaime Gili – A150 Anjos, Torsten Lauschmann – Balaclava & Sweatband, Ross Finn-Kelcey – untitled, Declan Clarke – Let.

The submissions showcase a huge range of mediums, from photography, painting, printing, sculpture and beyond. However, no matter how abstract the artist’s interpretation, the iconic roundel logo is still recognisable and shines through – which is a testament to the design itself.

Many believe this is down to the sheer simplicity of  the roundel’s form – two basic shapes intertwined with one another.  Others consider the bold red, white and blue colours of the British flag look continually contemporary. The roundel utilises both form and colour, and marries them in an image of simplicity. This creates a memorable design which has confidently progressed with, rather than changed to suit, the times.