Old-style British Rail logo at Sevenoaks station

The arrows of indecision. The barbed wire. The crow’s feet. In the 50 years since he drew up one of the UK’s most recognisable symbols, designer Gerry Barney has probably heard them all. But he doesn’t mind.

The story of the British Rail symbol began in 1960 when a 21-year-old Barney successfully applied for a job as a lettering artist at the prestigious Design Research Unit (DRU) in London, and quickly established a close working relationship with the studio’s co-founder, Milner Gray. Despite being forty years older than his new employee, Gray seemed to have found a kindred spirit in Barney – he became the first person in the studio permitted to work on the head designer’s drawings, and the first to address him directly by his first name.

“I was a lettering artist, I wasn’t a designer.”

“The designers at DRU were given the brief and, to my knowledge, it didn’t satisfy Milner. So he threw it open to the rest of the studio, six or seven people. I just happened to think of this symbol.”

British Rail identity

Appropriately enough, Barney first sketched the idea ‘on the back of an envelope’ while taking the Tube to work. “When I got to the office I drew it up,” he says. “It was exactly how I drew it the first time, with straighter lines. I just had to formalise it.”

“In the BR [British Rail] symbol, the lines aren’t all the same thickness: where the angled bars meet the horizontal ones they will appear thicker at the join, so they actually widen slightly going out. But that comes from lettering, where you have to pay attention to the counters; the spaces that are left, not the thing you’re drawing. They work together.”

References

See also

Craft and creativity

The untold story of the British Rail logo

Writing of the project in the pages of Design magazine in 1965, Robert Spark reflected on some of the basic visual elements that DRU created for British Rail: the symbol, the logotype and a palette of house colours. These elements would then be applied to every part of the railway system, from locomotives and rolling stock, to stations and offices, signposts, posters and publicity material, uniforms and cutlery. Even by the standards of today’s multimedia applications, it was quite an undertaking.

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