A brief and by no means exhaustive list of a few of the most famous, formative, and influential projects birthed in and by The Big Smoke.
- Designs for the London Underground
When the London Underground transport network launched 150 years ago, it spawned an ever-growing series of classic pieces of graphic design in its wake, from maps to signage, posters, and typefaces. Much of these early works can be attributed to London transport’s first chief executive Frank Pick, who had an insightful take on the value of art and design to people’s everyday lives. Pick was responsible for commissioning posters by the likes of Paul Nash, Edward Bawden, and Graham Sutherland; the London Underground typeface and roundel by calligrapher Edward Johnston; and the Tube Map by Harry Beck in 1931.
Johnston’s 1916 typeface, dubbed the “Underground Alphabet,” directly informed one of today’s most recognizable typefaces, Gill Sans, designed by Eric Gill and released by Monotype in 1928. The much-lauded font has been used by London and North Eastern Railway as its typeface for timetables and duplicity material since the late 1920s. In Ben Archer’s book about Gill Sans he even goes so far as to describe it as “the British Helvetica.”
- The Yellow Book
A key plot point in in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray revolves around The Yellow Book, an illustrated quarterly publication published in London from 1894 to 1897 by Elkin Mathews and John Lane. Art editor Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations, characterized by sensuous black linework, became synonymous with the era’s Aestheticism and Decadence movements and has been highly influential on editorial illustration ever since. The Yellow Book’s original publisher, The Bodley Head, existed as an independent entity until the 1970s, and is today a Penguin Random House imprint. In collaboration with the Financial Times, it runs an annual essay competition for non-fiction work by writers aged between 18 and 35.
In 1967 Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell and Storm Thorgerson were approached by their friends in Pink Floyd to design the cover for the group’s second album, A Saucerful of Secrets. They formed the design and art direction studio Hipgnosis formally in 1970, renting a studio at 6 Denmark Street.
Powell and Thorgerson shared a flat in London’s South Kensington with Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, and the name came from Barrett scrawling the word HIPGNOSIS on the door in ball-point pen. Powell says, “Syd was a clever wordsmith and only he could have made up such a brilliant acronym. He is to thank for linking ‘hip’ (pertaining to a cool subculture) with ‘gnostic’ (esoteric knowledge of spiritual matters) and the noun ‘hypnosis’ (an artificially induced trance state resembling sleep characterized by heightened susceptibility to suggestion).”
Among the studio’s most famous designs are the 1973 cover design for Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and photo-design images for Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, Genesis, Black Sabbath, Peter Gabriel, The Alan Parsons Project, 10cc, Styx, Bad Company, and Yes.
Peter Christopherson, a member of the industrial bands Throbbing Gristle and Coil, joined as an assistant in 1974, and became a full partner in 1978. Other collaborators over the years included George Hardie, Neville Brody, Richard Evans, Bush Hollyhead, Geoff Halpin, and Humphrey Ocean. The studio ceased operations in 1983, having stopped making all album cover and advertising work the previous year to concentrate instead on movies.
- Punk Graphics and Fanzines
Born in Croydon, an unglamorous area of south London, Jamie Reid’s work for the Sex Pistols—namely, the sleeve for the 1977 album Never Mind the Bollocks—sets a precedent for punk graphic design. Reid had studied at Wimbledon Art College and Croydon Art School, and was responsible for the design of Situationist International’s publication Heatwave.
Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren brought Reid in to work with the band in 1975, and he often worked with handwritten lettering and iconography such as safety pins and a torn portrait of the Queen. For Never Mind the Bollocks, he used only typography and a lurid combination of neon yellow and pink (a nod to Day-Glo marketing stickers). The clashing typefaces of the sleeve are used alongside ransom-note style cutout lettering, which were said to have evolved from performer and Sex Pistols fan Helen Wellington-Lloyd’s designs for punk flyers.
London’s fanzine scene has a strong and vibrant history. The most famous punk zine, Sniffin’ Glue, was founded in 1976 by Mark Perry in Deptford, South London, and was only published monthly for a year, yet went on to inspire so many more DIY-based publications and their design. The cut and paste, scrappy aesthetics were born both of a reflection of punk style and simply because the collaged and photocopied reproductions used the only available tools for making something quickly and easily.
These sorts of publications found a large and rabid audience that was keen to find its reading material outside of traditional magazines. However, they went on to inform the mainstream press as well: for example, the magazine iD started life as a zine-like exploration of street style subcultures in 1980.
Naturally, the world of marketing and mass culture eventually caught on to this youth culture fascination with scrappy design and often personal, stream of consciousness writing, and by the 1990s there were numerous “faux fanzines” that mimicked their graphic style yet eschewed politicized meanings and “authenticity” for commercial ends. In 1998, ad agency Wieden + Kennedy even drew on the local Portland DIY scene for its Nike campaign U Don’t Stop.
Key London-born zines include art director Jonh [sic] Ingham’s 1977 zine London’s Burning; feminist publication Shocking Pink, spanning 1979 to 1992 and run by three different collectives; Fred and Camilla Deakin’s acid house fanzine Boo!, from the early 1990s; punk scene-focused In The City, published by Francis Drake between 1977 and 1980 at record store Rough Trade in west London; and more recently, James Pallister’s Meat Magazine, which was founded in 2004 as a platform for new writers and artists, with a different theme in each issue.
Thanks to their grassroots origins and personal takes on the world, many of these publications were synonymous with London in both their graphic language and viewpoint. Vague, for instance, was founded by Tom Vague in 1979, and acted as a place to discuss Situationism, anarcho-punk, and “the decay of the spectacle.” The layouts were deliberately frenetic and chaotic, and often used bright neon colors and overlying of various snippets of text and imagery on the cover.
- You Can Be Sure of Shell Poster, Edward McKnight Kauffer, 1933
The above poster was part of a campaign by Shell led by Jack Beddington in the early 1930s, who went on to commission designers including Paul Nash, Vanessa Bell, and Graham Sutherland. The color palette is limited, a nod to the Modernist and De Sitjl art movements of the time, as well as the Bauhaus school. An abstracted face is formed using Cubist-like collage techniques taking in geometric cues for the composition. Kauffer was bold in his mixture of typefaces used on the poster, taking sans serif and serif faces and using different weights, sizes, and colors across the image.
This piece was a key moment in showing how brands were beginning to use their visual identity, as well as their product, as a vital part of their marketing and sales strategies.
- The Face
Publisher Nick Logan, who previously set up pop mag Smash Hits, launched The Face in 1980 as a publication about music, politics, and fashion—all accompanied with a generous amount of photography and bold typographic intermissions. The publication’s designer from 1981 to 1986 was Neville Brody, who drew influences from Russian Suprematist artists El Lissitzky and Jan Tschichold, as well as Bauhaus designs and De Stijl artists.
“When the staff could not get good pictures, they printed big lettering over the top of bad ones, or cropped them at odd angles… Brody and the stylists and writers who created The Face refused to limit their scope,” writes Jenny Wilhide in her book, Design, The Whole Story. “They wanted to create ambiguity and a flexible dialogue, and they aimed to be as creative as possible. The ferocity of this passion burned through every page of this magazine.”
- Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s Motorway signage, 1963
In the early 1960s, graphic designers Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert created a legible system of motorway typography and graphic icons still in use across the whole of the UK today. Kinneir was appointed on the strength of his signage for Gatwick Airport, and in turn brought in Calvert to work with him, having previously taught her at Chelsea School of Art.
The typeface, dubbed Transport, is a variation on Akzidenz Grotesk. On motorway signs, it’s rendered in white against a blue background to increase visibility in car headlights at night. The type is carefully spaced; kerning forms a key component in the signs’ legibility.
Kinneir and Calvert based their pictograms and the shape of certain signs on the 1949 Geneva Protocol, which set out that triangles should be used for warning signs, circles for commands, and rectangles for information. Calvert was behind drawing most of the pictograms—such the one of the girl leading a boy’s hand to cross the road, based on a picture of Calvert herself as a child, according to Design, The Whole Story. Calvert became known for her ability to imbue even the simplest images with a certain character.
- Alan Aldridge
Born in east London, Alan Aldridge started his career as an illustrator at The Sunday Times Magazine, before joining Penguin Books as art director in March 1965. His work used bright colors and surreal imagery, and lent itself well to science fiction books and more unusual narratives.
Aldridge founded his own studio, INK, in 1967 and worked on graphics for the Beatles and their record label Apple Corps. He continued to work as an illustrator, creating images for The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics and The Penguin Book of Comics, both great examples of his airbrushed style that is so closely associated with the psychedelic era.
Aldridge also created the artwork for Elton John’s 1975 album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.