Above: Roundel on the wall of the concourse of Piccadilly Underground Station.
Frank Pick is a name that you may never have heard of before reading this article. You have often seen the results of his work across London and you probably have some of his designs in your home and may even carry some of his designs in your pocket. In spite of all the clues in the last sentence you probably still have not been able to work out who Frank Pick was. We are talking about what is now called London Underground and the well-known roundel that appears on every underground station in the capital. It was because of Frank Pick that we have this highly recognisable symbol – seen on every underground station and printed on the millions of free underground maps that are available at information centres across London.
If you were going to become famous for your ability to judge good design, what would be the subjects that you would chose to study before following such a career? There are probably several answers but it is very unlikely that you would list ‘being articled to a York solicitor and then going to university to complete a law degree’ as your number one answer. That is exactly what Frank Pick did. After obtaining his law degree, not being interested in a legal career, he started working for the North Eastern Railway in the company’s statistics department. He eventually became assistant to the company’s general manager, Sir George Gibb.
Gibb was later appointed managing director of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL) – the fore-runner of today’s London Underground. Gibb encouraged Frank Pick to move jobs and work for him as his assistant at UERL which he did. We are talking about the days of the underground just after 1900. Ticket prices on the underground were low but passenger numbers were much lower than the underground bosses had been hoped. Horse-drawn public transport on the roads was being replaced by electric-trams and also motorised buses. Passengers in London were attracted by the newer street transport and they were not using the underground trains.
It was at this point that Frank Pick who, in 1908, had become publicity officer for UERL decided on a plan of distinctive advertising to win the passengers back. He employed able designers to create an emblem for the underground. We would easily recognise it today because it was a form of red roundel with the blue bar across it bearing the name of a station. Frank Pick then started commissioning posters with large pictures on them, each one advertising a point of interest related to a particular station. Pick made certain that eminent artists were given the design contracts. Pick then engaged Charles Holden, one of the foremost architects of the day, to design distinctive underground stations for the new lines that were spreading into the suburbs. Some of them still remain – like South Wimbledon (on the Morden line) and Sudbury Town (on the Piccadilly line).
In short, it was Frank Pick who got the underground railway noticed and almost single-handedly devised the corporate branding that we know today. For a typeface, all the lettering was designed by another legend in his field – Edward Johnston. It is Johnston’s typeface that is still in use today on all London Underground signs.
To honour the memory of Frank Pick, a memorial was unveiled at Piccadilly Circus in the form of a roundel bearing his name. It was unveiled on 7 November 2016 – the 75th anniversary of Pick’s death in 1941. Beside the roundel are words found in Pick’s personal papers. The words seem to sum up a design philosophy that is still applicable today.