Monday, December 05, 2011

Design on the right tracks

Good design lasts a life time. Bad design tends to hang around as a warning to others; Private Eye filled columns every week showcasing how the Consignia rebranding of the Post Office involved a logo which resembled water running down a plug-hole. An entire episode of Points Of View obsessed over the decision to spend licence fee money on introducing the Gill Sans typeface to BBC television. "It looks like you're broadcasting programmes on 'BB CONE'", said one viewer. They had a point. Indeed, they still do.

If any symbol of good design still does its job today, it is the sign you'll notice but not realise you've become accustomed to, the logo which has been adapted and adopted by groups far beyond its original organisation, and one which has outlived numerous changes to the structure for which it was intended. The most remarkable characteristic is how, years after rail privatisation, the British Rail 'two arrows' has remained in every place it was originally put and countless more besides. Each new multi-storey car park displays the logo in over sized lozenges, every new build railway station uses in signage, councils still use it on direction signs.

First seen in 1965, the 'two arrows' is an iconic reminder of an era long gone, and design vision which remains at the heart of exponents of classic works today As easily recognisable as the O2 bubbles or the Nike tick, the 'two arrows' have long since survived the selling off of British Rail in the tail end of John Major's Conservative government. Amongst the mess of private company logos and rebrands, this 60s landmark is a proven survivor.

Following the collapse of Railtrack, a new company was set up to look after anything trains ran on, in, under or through. Network Rail could have been the 'new' British Rail, a national touchstone and branding exercise to revitalise the industry. Its logo has not seeped through the consciousness of the nation, its attempt to ape the BR original looking both obvious and weak.

Why has the BR original survived? It is simple, effective, pure - the directional arrows may have been mocked as proof of "indecision" back in the day, but now there is no realistic alternative. The Network Rail version has an unapologetic corporate look, the triangles and rectangles are too clever-clever, badly thought out, almost ugly. What do we trust most - rails running off into the distance, or arrows pointing the way?

With the great soup of private companies and TOCs trying to bury tradition under a mesh of their own typefaces, logos, emblems and symbols, it is refreshing to see those 50+ years old time capsules surviving at railway stations across the land. "Railway" font is used almost everywhere still today, though new build railway stations have been grasped by the hand of 'modernisation'. As long as the 'two arrows' point the way, we should always know where we are. Very few alternatives from any other field are so brilliantly resilient.