London Transport

A progressive public transport system, London Transport is home to many of the most familiar design icons of Britain.

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London Transport

From the 1916 red, white and blue roundel symbol, to the 1933 diagrammatic underground Tube map, and the 1956 Routemaster bus, many of the most familiar design icons of Britain belong to LONDON TRANSPORT in its heyday during the first half of the 20th century.

In the 1930s the London Transport network of underground trains, buses and trams was regarded as the world’s most progressive public transport system and a role model of enlightened corporate patronage of contemporary art and design.

The red, white and blue roundel symbol redesigned by Edward Johnston for the Underground in 1916 and adopted by the newly founded London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) in 1933 has come to symbolise the whole of London, not just its transport system. The same can be said for the diagrammatic London Underground map devised by Harry Beck in the early 1930s, which has since been imitated all over the world as a model of modern map design.

In its golden era of the 1930s, London Transport was also an important patron of contemporary art. Eminent artists such as Man Ray and Graham Sutherland created publicity posters, while Paul Nash designed upholstery fabric for the seats of trains. London Transport commissioned work from noted designers, such as Hans Schleger and László Moholy-Nagy; while the poet, John Betjeman, wrote its tourist leaflets.

Many of the most famous examples of London Transport design were commissioned by Frank Pick (1878-1941), a Lincolnshire-born solicitor, who joined the Underground Group in 1906. After expressing an interest in publicity, with the support of the Chairman Lord Ashfield, Pick presided over the introduction of the roundel and bright graphic posters to the Underground before the First World War. He became managing director of the LPTB in 1933. Convinced that London Transport should be an exemplar of design excellence, Pick commissioned work of the highest quality for everything, from station architecture to litter bins. He ensured that it was implemented with great rigour, regularly travelling the length and breadth of the network, often late at night, to check that every detail was up to scratch.

After Pick’s departure in 1940, his work was continued by the publicity manager Christian Barman, and later by Harold Hutchison. After the Second World War London Transport was facing a changed world with rising costs and falling passenger numbers. In this climate there were fewer opportunities for new work in design, although the loss of Pick as a driving force is noticeable. Even so, the Routemaster Bus and the Victoria line stand out as notable achievements of this period. Some of London’s most familiar and best loved designs date from the ‘golden age’ of transport in the early 1900s to 1940 and their legacy still influences the design philosophy of London’s transport today, from the construction of the landmark Jubilee Line stations in the 1990s – notably by Foster & Partners at Canary Wharf and Michael Hopkins at Westminster – to the new Crossrail stations opening in 2018.


Among the earliest – and most enduring – manifestations of London Transport design is the bar and circle symbol, known originally as the bullseye, and renamed the roundel by Misha Black in 1972. The first version of the logo (bullseye) was introduced in 1908 with a solid red circle at the centre. In 1916, Frank Pick commissioned the typographer Edward Johnston to revise the symbol so that it was suitable for use both as a company logotype on printed materials as well as station signage. This version of the logo was trademarked in 1917.

Johnston replaced the solid red circle with a circular frame and introduced Johnston Sans, the typeface he had designed for the Underground Group in the same year, to spell out the company or station name in white across the central blue bar. The proportions of the new logo were defined by those of Johnston’s typeface, which had been designed with legibility in mind to be read by busy passengers across crowded platforms. The resilience of Johnston’s logo was proven in 1935 when the graphic designer Hans Schleger adapted it for use on bus stop signs.


By the early 1930s, the London Underground network had expanded so considerably that it had become increasingly difficult to squeeze all the new lines and stations into a geographical map. Existing maps were crowded, confusing and hard to read. In 1931, in his spare time, Harry Beck (1902-1974) redesigned the Underground map as a simple diagram. Beck’s design was initially rejected as it was a really radical approach from what went before. However Beck re-submitted his design and it was accepted.

Beck represented each line in a different colour and interchange stations as diamonds. The crowded central area was enlarged for legibility and the course of each route was simplified into the form of a vertical, horizontal or diagonal. The diagrammatic map was produced in 1933 as a pocket map and Beck continued to refine it until 1959. His design has inspired the maps of underground networks from New York to Sydney, and a variation of his original design is still used by London Underground today.


Concerned that every element of London Transport’s activities to be designed – and maintained – to the highest possible standard, Frank Pick insisted that even apparently minor fixtures were specially made for the new network, including the fabrics to upholster the seats of its buses and trains.

When the London Passenger Transport Board was formed in 1933, most of the upholstery fabric used in its vehicles was moquette, woven by the jacquard process from wool and later a wool/nylon mix backed by cotton. Moquette was exceptionally durable, but the designs were purchased off-the-peg from the manufacturers. Pick and Barman decided to commission designs specifically for London Transport. They approached prominent designers and artists including Marion Dorn, Norbert Dutton, Enid Marx, Paul Nash and, later, Marianne Straub. Many of their designs – such as Nash’s 1938 Alperton, Marx’s 1937 Brent and Dorn’s 1938 Leaf – were used by London Transport until the late 1950s, when more regular grid-based patterns started to appear.


As head of the London Underground Group in the 1910s and 1920s and of the newly merged London Transport in the 1930s, Frank Pick was instrumental in establishing the world’s most progressive public transport system and an exemplar of design management. Personally passionate about the visual arts and firmly of the belief that a responsible organisation like London Transport should inspire and educate the people who used its services, Pick was characteristically ambitious in his choice of artists and designers to create posters for the network. Many of the most famous artists of the time, including Graham Sutherland (1903-1980) and Paul Nash (1889-1946), accepted Pick’s invitation to create artworks for posters, and passengers looked forward to seeing their latest work. Pick organised exhibitions of the posters – and other examples of modern art and design – in the booking office at Charing Cross Station.

Among the first artists to create posters for the Underground Group was the American-born painter Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954), who was commissioned by Pick in 1915, a year after his arrival in London. Highly influenced by Cubism, Futurism and Surrealism, Kauffer introduced many elements of the emerging modern art movement to his posters in a bold, but fluid style. A particularly iconic poster was created by the American surrealist Man Ray (1890-1976) in 1938, when he juxtaposed the roundel against an image of a planet in the night sky.

The 1930s was an invigorating period when the British modern movement was enriched by European émigrés fleeing Nazi oppression. Pick and Christian Barman, Publicity Officer for London Transport, were swift to commission them. Artists included the Hungarian-born László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) and the German designer Hans Schleger (1898-1976) whose 1935 design for the poster Thanks to the Underground is among the most memorable created for London Transport.


The expansion of the Underground network, specifically the extension of the Piccadilly Line in 1932, offered a rich opportunity for Frank Pick and his team to embark on an ambitious programme of construction and reconstruction of stations, ticket offices and termini. Pick employed the architect Charles Holden (1875-1960) to create a new architectural idiom for the network. “Nothing shall be built, which has not been specifically designed to conform with the architecture scheme”, decreed Pick, who insisted that the design of station signage, furniture and even litter bins should be in keeping with that of the building.

Pick and Holden made several foreign trips to investigate the modern architecture of Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. The result was a succession of uncompromisingly modern buildings such as the gleaming brick and glass stations at Boston Manor, Sudbury Town, Arnos Grove, Southgate and Oakwood. The chief characteristics of their British take on continental European modernism were sweeping curves with geometric detailing, bold combinations of block and drum forms, with exposed brickwork and concrete which were starkly modern compared to the suburban semis that were soon to surround them.


The double-decker bus, which has become such an evocative symbol of London, was first introduced in 1925 when the London General Omnibus Company finally secured official approval for buses with covered top decks. The first double-decker was the NS-type, but the most memorable was introduced thirty years later when the Routemaster took to the road.

Developed over seven years and unveiled at the Motor Show in 1954, ‘London’s Bus of the Future’ was created by a team led by London Transport’s chief bus engineer Albert Arthur Durrant (1899-1984) and industrial designer Douglas Scott (1913-1990). The Routemaster was designed with mass-production in mind, incorporating new techniques developed building aircraft during the Second World War. Following the pattern established by the earlier RT-type the bus was constructed from the maximum number of standardised interchangeable parts, they cut the cost not only of the initial tooling and manufacturing, but of repairs and maintenance too. They also equipped it with the latest automotive engineering innovations such as power steering, an automatic gearbox, hydraulic brakes, independent springs and heating controls.

Passengers loved the Routemaster for Scott's distinctive ‘brick’ silhouette, with a flatter front and less prominent engine than its predecessors, and for its appealing interior features. Scott styled the interior in tartan moquette, red leather cloth and Chinese yellow with soft tungsten lighting and shiny stainless steel fittings. He also finessed such details as the ‘lovers’ seat’ at the back and wind-down windows. The Routemaster remained in active service for nearly fifty years. After several reprieves, it was finally withdrawn in December 2005, although today the Stagecoach company still runs Routemasters on one route, the 15.


Text © Design Museum and London Transport Museum

Images © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection



Frank Pick arrives at the Underground Group as assistant to Sir George Gibb, the new deputy chairman.


The ‘UndergrounD’ brand is first applied to Tube stations, followed closely by the first version of the roundel ‘bar and circle’ symbol.


Pick is appointed head of the Traffic Development and Publicity department of the Underground Group.


Edward McKnight-Kauffer designs the first of his 128 posters for the Underground Group and London Transport.


Pick commissions the typographer Edward Johnston to develop a new typeface for use throughout the Underground – Johnston Sans.


In 1916 Edward Johnston begins work on the redesign of the roundel symbol used by the Underground Group since 1908 and the logo is trademarked in 1917.


Architect Charles Holden starts work on the design of stations for the Morden line extension.


Charles Holden designs the new headquarters for the Underground Group above St James Park tube station at 55 Broadway.


Construction begins on the extension of the Piccadilly Line to the north and west.


Sudbury Town opens as the first landmark Piccadilly Line station. Draughtsman Harry Beck starts work on the design of a diagrammatic map to guide passengers around the sprawling Underground network.


Harry Beck’s design is published as a pocket map with a print run of 750,000. The London Passenger Transport Board is established as a single London-wide state-funded transport operator with Frank Pick as Managing Director, and Lord Ashfield as Chairman. After a short-lived LPTB symbol in Johnston Sans capitals, the roundel is adopted as the symbol of the new network.


New bus stops, designed by Hans Schleger as a variation of Johnston’s roundel, are piloted on the route between Euston Road and Seven Sisters Road, then introduced throughout the network.


Introduction new streamlined, more spacious tube trains, which remained in service on the Bakerloo and Northern Lines for fifty years.

Man Ray completes the London Transport – Keeps London Going poster juxtaposing Johnston’s roundel against a planet in a night sky.


Pick resigns from the LTPB on a point of principle, and dies the following year.


Work begins on the design of the Routemaster bus.


The Routemaster bus is unveiled at the Motor Show, entering service two years later.


The government gives the go-ahead for the construction of the Victoria Line, which ultimately introduces radical ticket gates machines and automatic trains.


Opening of the first stretch of the Jubilee Line.


Opening of the landmark stations of the Jubilee Line extension – notably Southwark, Bermondsey, Westminster and Canary Wharf – to link the West End with South East London and Docklands. London Transport is replaced by the newly constituted Transport for London.

Further Reading

Frank Pick's London: Art, Design and the Modern City

Author: Oliver Green

Publisher: V&A Publishing (2014)

Underground: How the Tube Shaped London

Authors: David Bownes, Oliver Green and Sam Mullins

Publisher: Penguin (2012)

London Underground by Design

Author: Mark Ovenden

Publisher: Penguin (2013)

A Logo for London

Author: David Lawrence

Publisher: Laurence King Publishing (2013)

London Transport Posters

Editors: David Bownes and Oliver Green

Publisher: Lund Humphries (2011)


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