Britain’s railways of the 1980s were a mess, figuratively and physically. Grimy trains streamed in and out of depots, through under-invested stations and between industries just about grappling with the new global economy in which they found themselves. To many, including British Rail’s clients, things were not looking good.
But the grime and dirt of the freight sector masked the fact that this was the most profitable part of BR. The goods business had seen a resurgence: the Railfreight sector had been reorganised into specialised subsectors including Distribution, Coal, Petroleum, Metals and Construction, and each was showing growth.
Two previous BR identity projects had not helped the outward image of freight. The BR Corporate Design Guidelines (the subject of a meticulous reprint by designer Wallace Henning and funded by Kickstarter) enforced strict rules of colour, type, imagery and logos to a degree never seen before on a transport network. It, along with a comprehensive investment in systems and process, helped unite BR’s motley collection of stations, stock and assets as a single entity.
It led to the painting of all locomotives in BR blue, with yellow warning-panel ends, almost without exception. Every size and shape of loco went that way; even the three steam engines run by BR on the Vale of Rheidol Railway in Wales had the BR-blue and white double arrows slapped on the side. But it stamped out individuality and also the pride in the mechanical iron horses that hauled the trains and that were once so cared for by depot staff.
A second rebranding, for the Railfreight division carve-out in 1982, led to all locos allocated for these services to be painted dark grey, with yellow ends and red stripe. The greyness was explicitly there to hide the dirt; there was no need to wash these hulking beasts any more. With greyness and with tiredness the strong regional and local identities that were important to rail workers had also begun to dry up.
BR had to convince industry that its approach and its teams were not grubby steam-age dinosaurs (even if some of its locomotives were) and that they were a force to be reckoned with against the rising tide of road haulage. Privatisation was being mooted in Westminster, and BR knew that it had to sharpen up in a commercial world as the world around it moved. Similarly, within, there was a need to galvanise the workforce, but there didn’t seem to be a plan.
Mike Denny, formerly Creative Director of Roundel Design and self-confessed railway enthusiast, explained how the brief came about.
“We’d had a call to work on a small livery project for a Class 37 [a medium-sized BR freight locomotive],” he says. “But it became quite clear that this needed to work as something bigger; more widespread. The team at the BR Architecture & Design Division told us that we were pushing on an open door – so we effectively wrote our own brief.”
The Roundel team mooted a couple of creative approaches including what Denny tantalisingly refers to as a “bit of a Dan Dare style” route, but rapidly landed the now-iconic theme.
“We realised we could keep it simple, but layer it,” he says. “You’ve got British Rail at the top of the identity. You know it’s British Rail – it had to be – it was the only operator! We did give a nod by using their Rail Alphabet typeface to provide consistency with the passenger trains, too.
“Next down is the operating division, so you’ve got the locos and wagons painted in our triple-grey for Railfreight. You didn’t need to have the word ‘Railfreight’ plastered over it – we had confidence that people could tell them apart by colour from the passenger locos at speed. Next we divided it by subsector of operation by using squadron-style marking, then by depot, and then finally the locomotive number, or quite often, name. That gave a really personal feeling.”
The subsector squadron marks were inspired by air force markings – particularly those from the Polish Air Force – as Roundel and the team at BR realised the need to bring teams together under manageable and identifiable groups.
Each of the final six squadron marks in blue or red with yellow, incorporating a stylised ‘F’, were designed with paint and scraperboard and tested in large formats. The squadron concept was perfect – the antithesis of the grubby past – bright battle shields showing a confident and optimistic future. It was immediately obvious that these worked at a distance on locomotives crossing the country and up close on print ephemera, buildings and uniforms.
Next were the depot plates; the badges of honour. Produced in bright chromium they reflected the allocation of each locomotive and gave staff both ownership and their own local identity again.
A masterstroke was getting each depot team to nominate their preferred icon which was then styled by Roundel, avoiding a top-down implementation that may well have fallen on deaf ears. The icons were installed not just on locos – which now rewarded a good clean – but throughout stationery, notice boards, depot signs and even mugs.
It should be noted that the love for this identity was not universal; to some died-in-the-wool rail enthusiasts or to staff who had seen many of the diesel locomotives since the 1950s having new heraldry emblazoned on the side of them there was a reckoning that they looked a bit odd.
Some pointed out that quite often a loco diagrammed for a coal train might end up working a long line of petrol tankers, thus rendering the squadron mark incongruous to the casual observer. But those were tiny operational issues – what mattered was the overall effect.
And it worked: business customer feedback was overwhelmingly positive, staff almost entirely welcomed it and Railfreight won FT and BBC awards for cultural change.
It was with a little sadness therefore that this postmodern identity lasted but a few years, when it was replaced by the incoming corporate tide of UK rail privatisation. Depot and sector allegiances disappeared; a new world had dawned. New liveries, new logos, new identities.
So, more than 30 years on, to the exhibition at the D&AD today. This surprising but welcome retrospective came about after one of the ex-Roundel team (now Creative Director of SEA Design), Bryan Edmondson, was pleased to read an article cheerleading the graphic design success of the old identity about eighteen months ago.
He convinced Mike Denny and a raft of ex-Roundel colleagues that now, three decades after the identity was launched, was the time for a retrospective and contributions from all of both artifacts and memories came flooding in.
Perhaps the nostalgia cycle has swung in because those involved are now reaching professional maturity, perhaps it’s because there’s a renewed interest in rail transport in current affairs, or perhaps there’s a resurgent interest in corporate identities that represent organisations that were centralised and integrated.
Design for Rail is located in the D&AD Exhibition room, a large basement space in Shoreditch. The SEA Design team has clearly laboured love on this: previously hand-drawn symbols have been recreated and printed large across pillars and wall panels.
Huge bright replicas of the subsector identities stretch around the room and freight train imagery from the quite extraordinary night-time calendar photoshoots (all taken on working railway lines, occupied for a night by crews and then up-lit in the most remarkable ways) are projected on a large screen.
Four display cases of objects show the breadth of the identity as implemented. One contains the introductory letters from the BR client at the time plus some elements of printed guidelines and ephemera. Other cases display chromium depot plates and layout guides for applying the identity to various locomotive types. A lavishly printed exhibition catalogue accompanies the displays, containing some exquisitely produced artwork.
This is an exhibition created by a brilliant design team with much affection, but it does lack significant interpretation of the objects assembled for display as a museum exhibition might. A little more interpretation of these objects in location would help tease out of some of the fascinating stories behind them, rather than let them stand by themselves.
To dig deeper – for example to find out more of the great role that Jane Priestman and Colin Driver played as clients at British Rail, how the photographs were staged, the processes that the Roundel team used to get to the identity or the practicalities of how the identity was implemented – will benefit any visitor looking up online afterwards.
Overall Design for Rail is a greatly appreciated retrospective; a deserved elevation of an underestimated British brand identity, a welcome reveal to a wider audience beyond design rail enthusiasts who have enjoyed it for so long, and well worth a visit.
Tim Dunn is a transport historian and broadcaster (see @MrTimDunn). Design for Rail is on show at D&AD, 64 Cheshire Street, London E2 6EH until February 26 and is curated by SEA. See designforrail.co.uk
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