“You don’t need to know the geography. Connections are the thing”. Is that the latest thinking on internal communication? It could well be, but it is in fact a quote from The Culture Show that was shown on BBC2 tonight about the London Underground.
The programme was part of the 150th anniversary celebrations of the Tube network, the oldest one in the world, and that quote relates to the famous map that was designed by Harry Beck. On 9 January 1863 the world’s first underground train pulled out of Paddington station to make the first passenger journey, 3.5 miles under the streets of London from Paddington to Farringdon and into the record books.
Presenter Alastair Sooke guided viewers through a cultural history, and if you missed the show you can watch it online.
I’ve worked for the railway twice, as Head of Communications at London Overground Rail Operations Limited (LOROL) and also as Internal Communication Manager at Tube Lines, a private company responsible for the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly lines of the London Underground (now part of Transport for London).
I found the sense of pride displayed by employees in both organisations to be palpable, and with the rich heritage and history of the network, it was for good reason.
Part of tonight’s programme looked at how the brand of London Underground developed, and these were my key takeaways:
An unsung hero can make a difference
The show highlighted British transport administrator Frank Pick as ‘a relatively unsung hero.’ He ran the Underground for 32 years, until 1940, and was described as ‘shaping London and Londoners more than anyone since Sir Christoper Wren’.
Pick wanted to build the most modern transport system in the world and he built its reputation by introducing the public to modern art. I found it fascinating to hear how he did this and the role communication and art played in building the brand in the hearts and minds of Londoners and everyone who used, and continues to use, the network.
Communicate ‘the magic of the railway, rather than nagging’
Since its first graphic poster commission in 1908, London Underground has developed a worldwide reputation for commissioning outstanding poster designs, becoming a pioneering patron of poster art – a legacy that continues today.
When posters were first introduced, they were designed to be fit for purpose. This was defined in the programme as moving passengers through stations and “not to put bums (bottoms) on seats”, but to outline how the railway could be used e.g. to go to The Boat Race, attend sales and visit the countryside. There was a great quote in the show of “using posters to show the magic of the railway, rather than nagging”.
Navigating through the labyrinth
To mark the 150th anniversary, a major new artwork has been installed in all 270 stations, by leading contemporary artist Mark Wallinger. Labyrinths have been made using enamel on metal. This means they have been designed to last as long as the stations do. You can see a short video below showing them being made, and if you go through any of the stations on the network, you’ll see the artwork in place. The red crosses on them are the artist’s mark that mean ‘you are here’. You can also hear Mark Wallinger discussing his artwork via this podcast.
The programme revealed that art has played ‘an absolutely central role’ in the identity of the Tube. I liked the thoughts from Sam Mullins, Director at London Transport Museum, who quoted Frank Pick as saying: “Art has to come down off its pedestal and earn its living”.
Through posters by some of the finest artists of the day, the system became the people’s gallery and through architecture and design, its Johnston typeface and branding, it became the image of modernity. The Tube was described as being the longest art gallery in the country.
An exhibition of posters was featured on the show with the underlying message that ‘there is no catalogue – a good poster explains itself’. How many times have you seen or commissioned communication collateral that then needs to be explained? One of my takeaways from The Culture Show was reinforcing the power of simplicity and how good communication speaks for itself.
See for yourself
There is a poster exhibition currently taking place at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden. It runs until October and is on my to do list. I’m a fan of the museum and had the pleasure of writing some of the content for the London Overground exhibition a few years back when the East London Line opened. I also hired the whole place as the venue for a Long Service awards event at LOROL, which provided a stunning backdrop to an important occasion and was an ideal location for a proud workforce.
Transport for London has produced a timeline on Facebook to document the history of the network and you can see its regular Facebook page here. You can also find them on Twitter @TfLofficial and @bbccultureshow.
I’ll leave the final thought to Frank Pick: “The work to the Underground was a significant part of civilising the city. If things are well designed, people feel happier and more engaged with them”.
Post author: Rachel Miller
The video I mentioned of the new artwork being made is here: