London Underground Logo
A True London Icon
Some logos make their instant debut, take hold, spreads in recognition, and goes on to outlive and immortalize even itself. Take Edward Johnston’s 1919 rendering of the logo for the London Underground which has been adapted or appropriated across the world and has even been dubbed as a symbol of London itself.
When he commissioned Johnston to create the signage, the London Underground’s Publicity manager, Frank Pick, sought a piece of identifiable brand imagery that would infiltrate the public’s awareness and deliver rapid navigational intel at a quick glance.
So, Johnston went to work and began to toy with that now-familiar “roundel” shape — at the time a solid red disk, the vestige of familiar signage that had appeared on station platforms during the ten years previous. His version adjusted the proportions and lettering, and, in place of the disc, he created a red circle overlaid with a blue bar that would stand out as a label for the particular train stop. Simple, sleek, — and relentlessly transmittable.
As transportation systems across the world took their cue from London, the logo quickly landed itself throughout the commonwealth and beyond. France and Spain took up the symbol in the 1930s. And by the 1950s, it was displayed in places as widespread and remote as New Zealand and even Cuba. Many people attribute the spread of the logo to Harold Hutchison, a LU ad man hired in 1947 to up the organization’s visibility — and given a substantial budget to do so.
World War II – And Beyond
The years immediately following World War II brought waves of growth and migration to new towns and suburbs needing new tubes to connect them — all sporting a version of the prolific logo. As the London transport system expanded — so did its graphic design and art departments.
The roundel went out everywhere — perhaps to the point of overuse. Consequently, Johnston’s iconic design won over many. Although a registered trademark, commercial organisations made liberal derivatives of the blue and red bar/circle design for trademarks of their own — usually without reprimand.
This may have fueled the numerous copy-cat logos that have cropped up across the world — some of them almost identical to the original. One humorous by-product is the number of self-designated “underground” bars that co-opt the sign as a tongue-in-cheek subliminal reference. Examples of these are still seen around London and even as far as India.
The official roundel logo continues to be readily seen and utilised for all aspects of London’s transport system. Though it’s undergone a series of inscrutably subtle cosmetic changes over the years, it retains its original essence from 1919.
Attempts were made in both 1933, and even as recently as 1986, to introduce and brand the underground with an entirely new symbol intended to take the roundel’s place. However, neither of these attempts lasted more than a year and Johnston’s creation lives on as the people’s choice for their logo, with color, simplicity, and usability as the keys to its familiarity and consistency.