British Rail Identity

Here’s a glorious bit of design nostalgia for the New Year. It’s hardly a new find on the web; designer Nick Job first started this archive of the British Rail identity manuals in 2011, but I’ve just been reminded of it. Somehow I’ve never written about it either, which is a bit of an oversight given the entirely-unofficial and tongue in cheek name of this site: the British Rail alphabet and signage guidelines were also used by the British Airports Authority and National Health Service, making them as much a government standard as Britain ever usually manages.

The alphabet had two variants, one for dark-on-light type and one for light-on-dark. Light (and illuminated) type on dark backgrounds creates an optical effect known as ‘halation’ - i.e. it develops a halo, a slight sense of the letterforms being thicker than they are. To cope with this, the letterforms are reduced by the width of an outline for the lighter type, shown in the last panel above — while retaining the same spacing and other details of the type. It’s worth pointing out that a revival of the typeface is now available to license and as a web font from FontDeck.

For the non-British (or the very young) British Rail was the nationalised entity that ran the vast majority of railways (and a few ferry routes and other transport-related things) in the UK, beginning in 1948¹. It was rarely out of the news (more so on slow news days) for ‘record losses’, ‘strikes’, ‘failures’, ‘delays’ and so on. Starting in 1994 the network was dismantled and sold off, with the last few bits sold in 1997. Instead of a nationally-owned monopoly, we have regional monopolies owned by a variety of companies and (perhaps amusingly), the nationalised rail corporations of other countries. The headlines are now about ‘record price rises’, ‘record profits’ (also: greedy executives and shareholders), ‘overcrowding’, and yes, ‘delays’. According to the polls², privatisation is generally considered to have been a Very Bad Idea and Can It Go Back To How It Was, Please. Whatever your view or politics on the matter are, running an at-capacity rail network will never make you popular with the people who have to use it. I’m being charitable there.

Despite each of the rail operating companies having their own brands, for most British people the British Rail identity is still a familiar part of the landscape, with the logo being the road sign symbol for any rail station, and much of the signage (especially at smaller stations) unchanged from pre-privatisation days. But what an identity! The whole thing is such a brilliantly consistent and well-designed system, owing much of its strength to its crisp, stark simplicity, to its minimalism and almost-total reliance on typography alone. There’s so little to it that there’s very little (virtually nothing) that can ever really look out of date or old fashioned — sure in the 80s everyone³ had a thing for Rotis (for heaven’s sake) and there was that grunge stuff in the 90s and we’ve had the web and all that, but nothing that was really so outstandingly superior or more modern. What made the identity look bad was the usual thing that ruins most good things: neglect and apathy. A faded peeling sign in a shabby, half-ruined station with leaky roofs and deathtrap toilets is never going to look great, and by the time privatisation came along that was the caricature we were being presented with, and so out it went.

And that’s a real shame, for so many reasons.

1 It was originally called British Railways, changing its trading name to British Rail in 1965.
2 Quite a few links, but even The Express supports renationalisation, and it’s not known for its socialist views.
3 OK, not everyone, but it was very popular.
4 Pixellated type? So last decade.

Translated Untranslatable Words

I use the title guardedly, as these words featured and illustrated by Ella Frances Sanders at Maptia are all perfectly translatable, but as phrases rather than as neat single words. There’s probably a neat word in a language somewhere that we could use to describe concepts-as-single-words that can’t be translated into single words in other languages. We could of course make one up, say, we could call them uniglottal, i.e. existing as a word in only one language. Words like this get borrowed pretty quickly if they’re useful enough, for example, Schadenfreude — and while words get borrowed all the time, here they’re a special kind of loan word, describing an idea rather than a thing.

One of the words in the list, the lovely Japanese word komorebi reminded me of a word that’s been sufficiently borrowed long enough not to be included in lists like this anymore: bokeh, which is well-known in photography, and like a lot of loan words doesn’t venture much outside a particular profession or technical niche. Then you get to thinking of it and notice more and more, and it reminds me of a French colleague half-jokingly saying, “You can tell if an English word is one of the ones we brought over*: it has more than one syllable”. Controversial.

If you’re interested in the idea of words like this, Better Than English posts a new one fairly frequently.

* 1066 and all that, or, if you prefer.

Betteo 365

I’ve been enjoying Patricio Betteo’s 365 project for a few years now and somehow never linked to it here. The illustrations are (I think) added daily, though there’ve been a few months where it’s not been updated at all (sounds familiar, can’t think why). It’s a regular source of inspiration for me, with a mix of illustrative styles, with occasional photographs and typographic designs, and always in a square format — the variety and quality are quite brilliant. Patricio Betteo is extraordinarily talented, and if you look through his blog or DeviantART portfolio you’ll probably notice you’ve seen some of his work at some point even if you’ve not heard his name. Well worth a look.

Blued

I’m quite fond of illustrations made with restricted palettes (part of the appeal of mid-century printed ephemera, I think) so this project by Sameer Kulavoor (as Bombay Duck Designs) caught my eye when It’s Nice That featured it.

The illustrations highlight the use of basic blue tarpaulins in Indian cities by abstracting all the other elements and leaving just the shadows and the blue colour to define the scene. If in India the blue tarp is ubiquitous, as in Kulavoor’s words, “it makes for excellent sun-proofing, dust-proofing, pigeon-shit proofing, packaging, and temporary refugee camps.” they’re certainly familiar globally; I recall my father’s motorbikes being protected from the rain with them, a neighbour’s shed-rebuilding project shrouded in one (for years) and various festivals and outdoor markets seemingly constructed from them (and thickets of scaffolding poles). The book is available from Tadpole Store.

The ABC App

Created by Bart De Keyzer and Frederik Jacques, This is how I learn my ABC is a beautiful little educational app (or digital book, should you prefer) for the iPad. Clearly aimed at children, the app is delightfully presented with clean, crisp illustrations, bold typography and subtle animations, and therefore will probably get just as many designers as parents buying it (and I’d guess most of the overlap between those). The app is in three sections, the first a tour through the alphabet where you get to admire the big illustrations, hear the sounds of the animals and read a fact or two about each one, and the other two are quizzes that let you match the letter to the animal or vice versa, and keep score on how well you’re doing.

There are some posters available to buy on Society 6 as well (there’s no page listing all of them that I can see, so I’ve linked to D for Dog here). I think the name of the app is a little too dominant on them, if you got a ‘full set’ it’d look pretty strange — I’d rather they be more traditional with the illustration and animal name front and centre with the name of the app much less visible. After all, if you buy these for your home, who are you advertising to?

Pelican Covers of the 1960s

Very much a hey, look at this post, this. I’ve just seen a link to this collection on Things Magazine of Pelican Books covers for the 1960s (and each decade they were published). It’s interesting to see how the template developed along with the Penguin series until it all got a bit chaotic in the late ’70s and was discontinued in the 1980s. Joe Kral also maintains a collection of Penguin and Pelican covers on Flickr.

Open Architecture Manifesto at Adhocracy

A couple of years ago I wrote about Kuka, the RobotLab project built to write the entire Martin Luther bible onto a long roll of paper. The robot emulates the calligraphic style replicated in the Schwabacher blackletter typeface, writing it using a pen as a (particularly neat and tireless) human might. It’s quite a lovely thing*.

I was reminded of it when I saw this project by Walter Nicolino and Carlo Ratti (of Carlo Ratti Associati). They’ve designed and built a suspended plotter to write the contents of the Open Architecture Manifesto page on Wikipedia onto a wall at the Adhocracy exhibition at the Istanbul Design Biennial. As the text on Wikipedia is updated the robot erases and rewrites the document on the wall at the exhibition.

The comparison between the two projects is perhaps obvious, that one is reproducing a historical, unchanging document, while the other reproduces a brand new, constantly-updating and ephemeral one. Indeed until the manifesto was published in Domus magazine (whose editor Joseph Grima is curator of the biennial) the article kept being deleted by Wikipedia editors.

I’m especially interested how the plotter is reproducing the text. The typeface could be Times, but the generous amount of ink the fat nib of the plotter pen puts down, and the way it outlines the characters, makes it hard to tell exactly. Also, looking at the video the output is a serif face but part of the processing (in Processing) looks like it uses something more like Verdana or Tahoma. Could be that different parts of the text are in different faces of course. Curious.


* Though some people saw it as blasphemy and a sign of the imminent demise of humanity, the Earth, and the entire universe. I had some interesting emails.

Geometrical Psychology

I had been searching for something geometry-related when I found the Euclid book in the last post so when I found the Public Domain Review I wondered if they had anything else about the subject. Turns out they do, and I found this fascinating and somewhat bonkers book from 1887, Geometrical Psychology. Nothing to do with what I was looking for, but it has some remarkable illustrations in it where the author attempts to diagram the evolution of human consciousness. Some of my favourites:

The back of the book also has several pages of adverts for other works available from the publisher, and just the titles alone are fun to read through. Some of my favourites again:


Lunacy, drugs and booze! I’d imagine this was a rather popular set of publications.

The First Six Books of The Elements of Euclid

A series of unsuccessful (and unrelated) searches led to the happy result of finding this book (and the site it’s on). The Public Domain Review is a fascinating collection of articles about (and a collection of) out-of-copyright texts, images and films, and somehow I’d never seen it before.

I’d seen a page from the book and thought it to be something quite modern, something produced by some later follower of De Stijl or Bauhaus (something the Public Domain Review also comments on), but it is in fact from 1847. Not something you’d associate with early Victorian publishing at all. It’s a remarkable book, and thinking back to when I first learned geometry I wondered if something like this would have helped. In all honesty (and of course entirely my opinion) I can’t say it would. The pages are a visual delight but they compel the learner not only to learn the concepts and mathematical language but a whole new graphical one too. From my memories of Euclid you need a good guiding commentary (or a good teacher, or both) rather than a new translation to help you make the necessary connections and learn the principles well.


The long-s characters and the ornamented capitals are a clue to the age of the book, but the diagrams appear very modern.

Typographic Rhythm

Something I found the other week and caught my eye, a project by Jonathan Puckey to convey some of the aspects of handwriting, namely speed, into typographic weight. I like the idea, I remember having a pub conversation along similar lines many years ago. It was after a fairly difficult day and the old problem of conveying tone or mood in emails came up. A friend suggested a keyboard with pressure-sensitive keys and software that varied the size, weight, and perhaps even the style of the text depending on your typing speed and the force you were typing with.

The possibilities are still interesting (which is why this caught my eye) and might be an entertaining set of dimensions to add to OpenType. I guess you’d have to be careful with the calibration—some people type as if there are bankers hiding under the keys—otherwise you’d be known as “the shouty one” based on nothing but your emails.


Image via Jonathan Puckey‘s site. Also check out his Lettering Tool. Sadly it’s not available to download.