The untold story of one of the UK’s most recognisable transport signs has been told for the first time in a fascinating new book revealing the secrets of 29 classic logos.

The British Rail design is one that has lasted since it was sketched on the back of an envelope by a young artist as he took the Tube more than 50 years ago.

Now a registered trademark in the name of the Secretary of State for Transport, the story of the British Rail sign features in TM: The Untold Stories Behind 29 Classic Logos by Mark Sinclair alongside the British Steel sign, the 1898 Michelin logo and the design for the Victoria and Albert Museum.

This chapter and pictures have been featured with permission from the book, which is available now.

British Rail, Gerry Barney, Design Research Unit, 1964

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. While the British public were to gradually fall out of love with British Rail as an organisation, Barney’s classic double arrow logo steadfastly carried on, quietly working away as a simple but remarkably relevant piece of design.

From TM: The Untold Stories Behind 29 Classic Logos by Mark Sinclair

Its workhorse resilience is impressive. It survived British Rail’s privatisation in 1996, the effective re-nationalisation of the railway infrastructure in 2002, and remains the de facto symbol for rail stations across the UK, used over a range of applications from platform signage and tickets to websites and travel apps. In representing two sets of tracks and a stylised set of points, Barney’s brief to design something ‘ timeless’ looks to have done its job admirably.

In the early 1960s, British Railways, the nationalised rail network brought about by Clement Attlee’s Labour government in 1948, was changing. The aim was to turn it into a modern, streamlined organisation, with the help of a radical secret weapon: the corporate identity.

Canadian Railways had unveiled a bold ‘CN’ device in 1960, and this modern approach dispelled any doubts that the British Rail crest could not be brought up to date. Out would go the incumbent heraldic badge with its connotations of the steam age – a red lion in the heraldic sejant erect position, grasping a train wheel – and in would come sans-serif typography and a total, unifying identity system.

From TM: The Untold Stories Behind 29 Classic Logos by Mark Sinclair

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,” says Barney, who went on to co-found his own design studio, Sedley Place, in 1978. “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.”

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.”

From TM: The Untold Stories Behind 29 Classic Logos by Mark Sinclair

DRU produced around 50 different symbols, Barney recalls, and taped them up on the studio walls. Gray, along with George Williams, director of industrial design for the railways and the representative from the British Railways Board’s Design Panel, then selected a shortlist of six designs. This eventually came down to two: a design consisting of two circles and an arrow by the studio’s Collis Clements, and Barney’s symbol. “Arrows were in fashion,” he recalls.

But in an interesting twist, Clements’s design was leaked to the press – a risk inherent in using outside help to make the range of materials required to present a logo –and was subsequently abandoned. ‘Curtain fabrics were produced, carpets were woven, posters were printed, and it was all put together in the form of an exhibition,’ says Barney of the proposal stage. ‘But when Collis’s design got leaked, it only left one – the one I did.’

On closer inspection, Barney’s symbol isn’t quite as straightforward as it first appears, and much of this can be attributed to his background in hand lettering.

From TM: The Untold Stories Behind 29 Classic Logos by Mark Sinclair

“When you do a line of lettering with the characters the same height, the “o”s can look too small, so they’re always made a bit bigger,” he explains. “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.”

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.

Barney also recalls a key aspect of the identity design process that puts a graphic-design myth to bed. Legend has it that the shortening to ‘British Rail’ happened because the DRU simply ran out of time to draw up the letters for the ‘ways’ part of the name before the final pitch took place. However, Barney says that Gray had planned this change from the start and presented it as such. “British Railways were reorganising the whole network, making it corporate, so wherever you saw the name it would appear the same,” he says. “It was a nationwide piece of implementation. It couldn’t fail, really, whether you liked it or not.”

From TM: The Untold Stories Behind 29 Classic Logos by Mark Sinclair

At the time, the influence of German and Swiss design – notable, too, in Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s Rail Alphabet typeface for the railways – permeated the Design Research Unit. “DRU did a packaging concept for Ilford which looked like Geigy,” says Barney. “It was a big change, people were using Helvetica, moving away from traditional faces. Canadian National seemed to sum it all up. It was clean. But if you weren’t careful – boring. It took the life and soul out of things. In retrospect, there was too much, but at the time everyone wanted to use it; it was exciting.”

One idea of Barney’s, which would have rendered the BR symbol as a super graphic device, proved to be a bit too exciting for British Rail.” “the first designs I did for putting the symbol on a train had it covering practically the whole engine. It looked bloody great, but they wouldn’t do it,” he recalls.

Following the demise of British Rail, Barney’s double arrow is now a registered trademark in the name of the Secretary of State for Transport, from whom the Association of Train Operating Companies can use the symbol under licence across the UK network. Barney remains proud of the work, if pleasantly surprised that it is still in use.

“It worked because it was obvious,” he says. “When you think of railways, you think of parallel lines – up this way, down that way. There was a certain amount of logic I could use to explain the way it looked, then it was a question of stylisation. I’m proud that it’s lasted so long, more than anything. And I’ve never thought, “I wish I could do it again because I’d do it better.” I actually wouldn’t know what to do.” Fifty years on, those arrows seem far from indecisive.

Used with permission from TM: The Untold Stories Behind 29 Classic Logos” by Mark Sinclair. Published by Laurence King

Photo credits: Laurence King

Which logo would you like to know the story of? Let us know in the Comments section below.