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November 18, 2017
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Liam Gillick's 'One Hundred and Ninety Two Feet' illustration, published in The Roundel: 100 Artists Remake a London Icon, by Art on the Underground and Art. Source: itsnicethat.com.

The circle-and-bar in all its various forms is constantly bombarding the visual senses of London natives and visitors alike. It is there on the side of the bright scarlet-hued double-decker buses that run throughout the tarmac arteries of the city. It is on the River Boats that plough watery furrows as they traverse 'Old Father' Thames, taking tourists and commuters from north to south and east to west on a daily basis.

Has our society got to the point where this classic public transport symbol has transcended its original functionality to become the logo that represents London most adeptly?

It has much deeper social significance, also. There is little coincidence that whenever politicians vie for favour amongst city voters they often turn their attention to how they would improve the local public transport system. At the heart of this debate remains the iconic circle-and-bar; it represents the network of tubes and buses being discussed. It symbolises the general quality of city life. Most importantly, it is seen on a daily basis by the great majority.

As a Londoner, I take both the bus and tube on a regular basis and am rather blasé about its relative efficiency and reasonableness of cost - both matters often discussed by the electorate. However, the overall uniformity and clarity of its branding has certainly left an indelible mark on my consciousness.

Throughout life, this iconic logo has provided concise identification, information, reassurance and authority - all in a graphic design of geometric perfection. Has our society got to the point where this classic public transport symbol has transcended its original functionality to become the logo that represents London most adeptly?

This idea is the thrust of David Lawrence's recently published book, A Logo for London, which breaks down the ubiquitous stamp of London Transport's circle-and-bar logo and its underlying universal symbolism.

Lawrence, an architect, design historian and broadcaster, summarises the effectiveness of the logo in its reflection of the character of London in an introductory passage from the book. "Throughout its history, the bar and circle has been modern, but with a heritage; adaptable, but coherent; serious and fun. As new transport services come to London - with or without external sponsors, and below the streets or suspended by cables - so the bar-and-circle symbol continues to identify the system and is thereby reasserted as London's brand," writes Lawrence.

There is something very 'London' about the fact that this unofficial logo has not been specifically designed with that role in mind, but has found its place organically. Lawrence goes on, "But isn't this abstract device something else too? When it is seen in London, we know we are close to transportation services; in a global context it has become shorthand for the city itself."

Edward Johnston underground logo poster 1920

Edward Johnston's logo on a poster from 1920.
Source: ltmcollection.org.

It dominates the privately sponsored bike-hire scheme that offers the freedom and eco-friendly alternative of travelling by two wheels and even holds pre-eminence over the Emirates-backed cable car service that edges its way along the monumental skyline of the city's financial district. It may change colour in the denotation of the various modes of transport, but the circle-and-bar logo has become a constant in London's identity for over 100 years.

As the London Transport Museum website explains, it was in 1908 that the 'roundel' first appeared in various Underground stations across London. A blue bar bisecting a red circular enamel disc provided a distinctive sign that stood out amongst the commercial adverts and shop fronts. Like an ode to subterranean travel, complete with round wheel in combination with an abstract representation of wings, the original logo helped to clearly identify the Underground access points for those who wanted to utilise the service.

As the Underground system became more standardised it was not long before the roundel was updated to reflect the vertical and horizontal integration. In 1917, typographer Edward Johnston revised the roundel into its modern form, replacing the solid red circle with a thinner circular frame and introducing the white type on the blue bar to either indicate the company name or station name.

The new typeface, specifically designed for the Underground, was a humanist sans serif made with legibility in mind. Entitled Johnston Sans, the features of the font are the perfect circle of the letter 'o' and the diagonal square dot used above the letters 'i' and 'j' and also the full stop. London Transport's modern typeface, New Johnston, incorporates a digitised variant of Johnson's original.

The aesthetic value of Johnson's logo has become increasingly recognised by the art establishment. As a result, the London Underground is often used as a subterranean gallery for new works by artists reflecting the innovative design heritage of the Tube. Last year, in celebration of 100 years of the 'roundel', Art on the Underground commissioned 100 artists to create contemporary works inspired by London Transport's famous motif. The icon of London was playfully refashioned in paint, print and sculpture, while simultaneously reinventing itself as something much more than a mere sign.

Mark Noad Underground Tube Map

Mark Noad's Underground Tube Map.
Source: london-tubemap.com.

The exhibition was followed by the publication of The Roundel: 100 Artists Remake a London Icon, by Tamsin Dillon. The book includes the featured artists' own personal connection to the circle-and-bar.

The publication coincides with the artistic reappraisal of all aspects of Underground paraphernalia, including Mark Noad's redesigned tube-map, in recognition of the 150 years of operational service.

The London Transport system not only makes city life manageable for millions of people each and every day, but its distinctive signage and branding also give it something akin to a personality; a sense of homeliness and reassurance for an altogether lonely passage of time within darkened tunnels and crowded spaces. Even though the majority of Londoners may move around their city on autopilot, they retain an emotional connection with the circle-and-bar. It is a visual reference to the history, innovation and style of modern London.

Related: The New Routemaster and the Politics of Style & Design

Related: The Best of London Collections: Men

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