Let me start by saying that creating a visual language is not easy. As these humorously “edited” versions of common London underground safety signs show, icons can easily be interpreted in many ways other than the intended meaning:
London Underground has a long history of great design. They’ve developed their own excellent and distinctive style of communicating through visual imagery, icons, signage and maps. This is just as well, since it is the largest integrated transport system in the world and sees some 13 million passenger journeys every day. Design at this level isn’t a pretty little add on, it is fundamental to the success of each and every journey.
The iconic underground sign is awesome. For visitors to London, surely this is one of the most recognisable symbols that you’ll encounter during your stay. It’s deceptively clever. Maybe because it actually looks like what it represents — the line can be thought of as a train going through a tunnel — or maybe because of its simplistic design, it works not only as an icon but as a defining part of the LU branding, also functioning as a means to display station names. In different colours and contexts it has the power to represent different parts of the brand.
The icon for national rail is another I’ve long admired. The little red train tracks with movement in both directions? Genius. So simple, and yet does exactly what it needs to do. In the photo adding it to the tube diagram indicates that you can change at Balham onto other rail services. A significant piece of information from such a simple icon.
I sketched a few other everyday icons. Some such as this “No right turn” or “Exit” signs easily signify meaning. Others such as the familiar “electrical hazard” icon may require explanation the first time it is seen, although the lightning bolt does look quite representative of electricity. While the London Underground and National rail icons are cleverly designed, to someone who had never seen them before, they might not mean much at all.
However the thing that all these icons have in common is that even in a scrappy sketched out format, they are all completely recognisable and memorable. Once learned, they almost cannot be unlearned because they communicate in the most immediate and powerful way.
I’ll leave you with a great quote by the current Commissioner for Transport for London, Mike Brown, who oversees the network:
“A station needs to be functional but attention to detail is critical to make people feel like they are using a system that cares for them… Good design can make all of these things possible.”