Minding the language gap: On the brand voice of London Underground

by Rishi Dastidar, Head of Verbal Identity

I have a confession. I am a bit of a Tube geek. OK, quite a lot of a Tube geek. Not enough to be accused of being an actual trainspotter, heavens above – if you try me on S stock or Electric Multiple Units and the like, you’ll get no joy. But the arcana of the network, the trivia of travelling around town… enough people know not to get me started on the topic, for fear they might not ever leave the monologue, sorry conversation.

This does make me incredibly easy to buy a gift for, by the way, as it means you can pretty much get me anything from the London Transport Museum shop and I will be delighted. I follow the debates about whether the Tube map should be redesigned (be honest, you didn’t even know there were debates around that) with the fervour that others reserve for their football clubs or mistresses. (Current state of said debate: the present iteration is too complex, the information about fare zones too dense, and unless the angles of the lines start changing, how on earth will Crossrail, the Bakerloo extension and all of TfL Rail fit in?)

This is all said not to merely to prove how much of a sad sack I am, but also to convince you that I am fond, probably too fond of London Underground (LU) – in our parlance I am bonded to the brand, and no, no substitutes will do. At the risk of sounding like a victim of Stockholm Syndrome desperate to appease their kidnapper: I don’t drive, Ubers make me just that wee bit queasy ethically, and while I do like my 59 and 159 bus routes, they just don’t give me that same feeling of happiness as an urban traveller that I get when I settle down into that faded, dirty moquette.

So bonded am I, in fact, that I am the sort of LU customer that enters its competitions, as I did recently to name the rabbit that has adorned posters around the network – I won, by the way, with my suggestion ‘Beck’ paying tribute to the sainted Harry, designer of the now world-famous Tube map.

"On behalf of the passenger with the folding bike, I would like to apologise for hitting you all"*

Such fortune got me trying to think more deeply about the Tube as a brand. It’s fair to say that we’re so familiar with it, that it is so deeply a part of most Londoners lives that we might struggle without prompting to identify what makes it distinctive. But it doesn’t take much probing or prompting to start to find the features that get us purring visually at least – well, if you have the time to stop and look, instead of having to jump on to your train.

The oxblood red tiles that architect Leslie Green gave to the stations he designed, as a way of quickly developing a shared identity (they still exist at 29 stations today); the eponymous font drawn by typographer Edward Johnston that is still used across the network on posters, signage and beyond; Harry Beck’s map (well, technically ‘diagram’), now a design icon and much imitated; the roundel itself, its red circle and blue bar a beacon of welcome, a symbol of London and an example of city branding long before New York discovered its heart.

These features weren’t accidents, of course. They had been specifically designed under the guidance of Frank Pick, the presiding spirit of Underground during the early part of the 20the century, who was determined to meld the various disparate railway lines that came under his control into something unified.

He also wanted to ensure that the network grew, both in its geographical reach and in the number of people using it. Hence the creation of the homes in Metro-Land as the Underground spread out towards the villages of northwest London (yes, Wembley used to be a village) and the first advertising campaigns to tempt people underground (of course the ‘No Wet No Cold’ poster hangs above the fireplace at home).

So it’s not a huge leap to suggest that, if such a thing as verbal identity had been around in the 1920s, Pick would have been concerned about it, and concerned to make sure that the Underground had one. But then that leads to a bigger question; one that at first glance seems to be as head-spinningly complex today as it would have been then: how do you give a consistent voice to something as complex, unwieldy – as large – as a city’s transportation network?

Well, presumably you have to start by appreciating just how far and wide words can and do appear across the network. For if you were the Chief Word Person on the Underground you might never see the light of day again for you would be waving your magic pen over quite a jolly lot of stuff.

There are all the real-time tweets and messages about the service that need to get out. The dot matrix displays telling you where trains are terminating and how long you’ll have to wait for the next one. Ads telling you what TfL is doing with your ticket money. Instructions on how to wave your contactless card at the barrier. Messages on maps, leaflets telling you about the latest Platform for Art installation… And so on and on and on, almost as endless as the network itself.

It’s enough to make you retreat back under your desk. Can you – should you – even try to enforce consistency across this wide delta – torrent – of communications? Well, you have to try – at least set some baselines about what is good or not. To that end TfL provides voluminous documentation in the form of its editorial guidelines, as admirably clear a style guide as you could hope to find. You might wish to note that you, dear Underground passenger are a ‘user’ of the service; and wannabe humourists beware:

“Facetiousness, puns, wordplay: enjoyable if used sparingly and in the right circumstances – and if original. But if it isn’t truly funny, forget it. Don’t try for laughs.”

Knowing that, you do wonder who signed off on those posters chiding you for your less than considerate behaviour to your fellow travellers – you know the ones; where your newly-minted good intentions to move down the carriage or not block the doors are derailed by your fuzzy sense that the scansion of the verse isn’t right.

The reaction to the prodding poems does suggest something else though – whether we think about it explicitly or not, we the travelling public feel an ownership over the words that the Underground says to us. Which is why we feel gulled if we hear management drone speak instead of an authentic – a human – voice. Which is why we appreciate the posters apologising for the previous day’s service that sound like they were written by a harassed line manager, in yellow hi-viz jacket taking a break from fixing… railway things… to tap out a few brief, but sincere, words to say sorry.

And which is why we really enjoy it when we see some personality break through the fixed systems and processes; when a station assistant wriggles away from the script and puts on performance as they exhort you into the carriage. Travel for long enough on the network and you will without fail take a journey where a driver suddenly unshackles themselves from the terse limitations of next station announcements to tell you about a football result or maybe even sing a little.

Is this rule breaking best practice in delivering a consistent tone of voice? Of course, and we love the Tube even more because of it. (and yes, I know most of us say we don’t, but I’m not sure that’s actually true…) If we didn’t love it so, how else to explain the popularity on social media of the mostly hand-written messages of inspiration, wisdom and wit that most stations now send out in to the world every day? Sure, if you were of a cynical bent, you might scoff at the notion that a transport network has any business to do anything other than get you from A to B, and these are nothing more than gussied-up attempts to insincerely say ‘have a nice day’. But the reaction to them, they way they are enthusiastically shared (and props to my local station: Kennington) suggests we want – we crave for more than just a blank face from our transport authority.

All we need now is for the roundel to become an emoji, and then truly the Underground will have become a fully realised brand language. And next time you are stuck in a tunnel, a tip – try reciting the station names to yourself. You’ll find a poem is lurking in there, unexpectedly.

* One of the many quotes by a London Underground driver, collected by passengers. Source: http://londonist.com/2015/01/the-funniest-things-youve-heard-tube-drivers-say

Photo Credit: Josh Wilburne