Tag Archives: London Underground

38 – Frank Pick with a computer

We cannot talk about the wonder that was the London Underground in the inter-war period, without mentioning Frank Pick.  He was the leader responsible for creating an identity through the sponsorship of design and the imposition of consistent standards. As a result the Tube gained a worldwide reputation and provided a model that would be followed by many other bodies.

A modern equivalent is Apple, where huge success is based on a coherent design philosophy and Steve Jobs is famous for having been  obsessed  details and insisting that everything  conformed with his ideas of rightness. Interestingly typography was important to both of them. Pick’s idea of improving singe and creating an identity through a font was innovative, similarly Jobs had a keen interest in calligraphy (it is what he did when he dropped out of college) and he introduced a choice of fonts for rendering text on an Apple (a revelation in comparison to the existing machine types). But that is only  one manifestation of an insistence on quality in all aspects.  (Apparently both men were also very difficult to work with. I don’t know whether that goes hand in hand with such obsessions – it well might).

But in one respect there was a huge difference, which shows an interesting difference between the eras. Steve Jobs has been idolised and been given an almost mythical status; Frank Pick headed a public body and had no great public persona. He was a functionary, a member of the great and the good perhaps, but outside of his world he was anonymous. In someways I like that. I like the idea of celebrating peoples achievements but am not sure it is healthy to elevate people too high and venerate them.

Anyway that is at a bit of a tangent. My moment of pleasure today was  the passing thought that Pick and Jobs were alike (as well as both having one syllable  names with a meaning in plain english).

37 – Johnston Sans

blue plaque

The wonderful thing about doing this blog is the way one thing can lead to another.  A map of coffee shops leads to thoughts of the design heritage of London Underground – not only the map but the instantly recognisable roundel, the architecture of Charles Holden stations and, perhaps above all, the typeface Johnston Sans.

To me it is a consistent source of amazement that the font was designed as long ago as 1916, as it still looks fresh and is a million miles away from designs you would expect from the Edwardian/WW1 era. (You will see conflicting dates as to when the font was created, with some people crediting last year as the centenary but 1913 was the year Johnston got the design brief, he actually delivered it in two stages: block face in 1915 and full set in 1916).

If you are at all interested in the history of the design and its evolution into the modern New Johnston (the original was only meant for display and only existed in metal or wooden blocks, and so was not fully adapted for the computer age), I would recommend this article.

But the story of the importance of design is not today’s moment of pleasure. Instead it is learning that the Blue Plaque, which commemorates Edward Johnston is in his typeface. it must be the only plaque that is an actually example of the reason the person was notable. That sort of recursiveness is always amusing.