Archive: British Rail

I was looking on YouTube for music by Daphne Oram, the pioneering electronic musician who invented the Oramics machine.

What I found was this fabulous film called Snow. Daphne Oram contributed electronic effects to the music by Johnny Hawksworth.

The film is by Geoffrey Jones. Here’s what the BFI has to say about it:

Comprising train and track footage quickly shot just before a heavy winter’s snowfall was melting, the award-winning classic that emerged from the cutting-room compresses British Rail’s dedication to blizzard-battling into a thrilling eight-minute montage cut to music. Tough-as-boots workers struggling to keep the line clear are counterpointed with passengers’ buffet-car comforts.

A brilliant union of a few of my loves — electronic music, experimental filmmaking and public information films.

Example of a motorway road sign

I was pleased to see an article on the BBC News website about the brilliance of the design of the UK’s road signs. Minimalist and clutter-free, British road signs are a design triumph.

I often look to transport-related design of all types for inspiration. The reason is because they have to work well. Lives might depend on it. As such, a lot of research goes into them.

In the case of road signs, they have to be clear enough to read when travelling at speed, from a distance. They need to be processed quickly. They must deliver an unambiguous message.

It is not easy. But the the design of road signs almost never changes, and hardly anyone ever complains about them. That is an indication that they have got the design right.

The BBC News article outlines some of the research that took place when the signs were originally designed in the 1960s. It reminded me of the research that took place in the USA more recently, in the development of the Clearview typeface for road signs there. If you are interested in design, those articles make for interesting reading.

It’s not just road signs I like to take inspiration from. If anything, railway design is better. Railway signs may not have to be read at speed, but they still have to convey complicated information with clarity. Often these signs will have to be read by visitors from other countries, making it essential that the signs can be understood by people who might not speak English as their first language.

Earlier this year I read this fantastic article about a book called British Rail Design. It looks brilliant. I would love to get my hands on it, though sadly it seems to be rare and expensive.

Both the road signs and the British Rail Alphabet were designed by Jock Kinneir. But surely the granddaddy of railway graphic design must be Harry Beck, whose work needs no introduction.

Harry Beck's London Underground map

Harry Beck designed his original map in his spare time and was paid just five guineas. The iconic British Rail logo was designed by a 21-year-old, Gerald Barney. These are the sorts of facts that make you look at yourself and wonder what you have achieved in life.