British Rail: Temporary Institution, Permanent Logo
Going Strong – 50 Years Later
Gerry Barney encounters a range of responses to his original design for the British Rail. People give it their own nick names and associations, but the logo itself, with its memorable double arrow, has now lasted and persisted for 50 years.
This is no easy feat considering it’s lived through BR’s privatization in 1996 followed by a re-nationalization of the railways in 2002, and yet you still see it everywhere — tickets, websites, window signage, you name it.
To run itself more efficiently, British Railways took on a more corporate character in the 1960s and was looking for an easy-to-read logo that would bolster its functionality. At that time, Milner Gray, founder of the Design Research Unit, hired a 21-year-old Barney as a lettering artist. Barney created his concept for the logo – but where else? – while taking the tube to work. He thought it up on the commute, then walked straight into the office to draw it.
Upon completion, his spec for the logo was met with competition from a design by Collis Clements, his colleague within the studio. As fate would have it, Clements’ design was discarded after being leaked to the press, leaving Barney’s as the only viable option.
Why So Effective After All This Time?
Barney says the reason the logo has worked so effectively for all these years comes down to what’s painfully obvious: parallel lines with intersecting diagonals are a straightforward representation that instantly signifies rail tracks and transfers. Working from that basic foundation, perfecting the logo was simply a matter of stylization.
As the famous image grew more and more widespread and appeared on every sign, surface, document, and uniform associated with British Rail, Barney recognized its ultimate success when the wording “British Rail” eventually fell away and people only needed his simple symbol to represent the BR. Without any lettering, regardless of their language of origin, people could read his communication.
But decades later, its ongoing presence is something neither Barney nor anyone else could have predicted. With the discontinuation of the British Rail, Barney’s double arrow lives as a registered trademark licensed across the UK by the Association of Train Operating Companies.
Barney continues to be very proud of his work and its longevity, and also admits that, if he had it to design again, he wouldn’t know how to make it any different or better. He hoped, in his own words, “to craft something timeless and, given the symbol’s continual use, seems to have succeeded.”
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