The Underground and an identity in signs

Having joined the Sign Design Society a few weeks ago, I was finally able to attend one of their monthly talks without fear of it clashing with my workload or time spent on campus.
This particular talk was entitled ‘Johnston’s lettering and a century of influence’ and was delivered by Mike Ashworth, Design and Heritage Manager of London Underground.

Having bumped into a a typography graduate and current PHD student from Reading, I was a little relieved to not be the only one talking business and reconnecting with old acquaintances. I’ll admit I got a little nerdy and we bagged a couple of front row seats for what turned out to be, a presentation of some truly remarkable photographs from the earliest days of the London Transport Network.

Oh the things I know about the contemporary and heritage signage of London Transport! I found myself making odd notes for specific leads that I would love to follow up the next time I am in London. These stem from the fact that there still exist today examples of old signage on the Underground network, that have been preserved or restored in order to maintain a sense of sympathy to the original buildings. This is extended to the continued use of non-brand standard Johnston typefaces in isolated pieces of signage, and the . The minutiae of this was extraordinary and cannot be as accurately (or enthusiastically!) conveyed here in any justice or quantity. In particular, the knowledgable tour through the slow evolution of the Underground Identity was informative and extremely well demonstrated with examples that Google fails to deliver in meaningful order. Nevertheless, some of the overarching messages that I left the talk with and headed out into the heavy rain, seem to be rather simple in the light of day.

There does not seem to have been any early movement or awareness of building a cohesive visual brand identity within the London Transport Network. Indeed, Mike’s talk took great pains to illustrate how change and uniformity was  slow to arrive, if it did at all in some cases! For me, the talk managed to successfully combine the visual history and devlopment of signage within a functioning system, with a satisfying side order of branding.

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