BR Corporate Identity
Many RAIL readers will fondly remember British Rail’s iconic designs that adorned everything related to the nationalised operation of the railways - not least its famous double arrow logo, that is happily still in use today.
To celebrate this rich heritage of typefaces, signposting, liveries and much more, The British Rail Corporate Identity Manual has been painstakingly compiled, edited and republished by Wallace Henning, as a comprehensive reference guide.
To mark the book’s recent release, RAIL presents the introduction written by British Rail’s former Head of Design Tony Howard (left), and a review written by Tim Dunn, presenter of the BBC’s recent series Trainspotting Live. RAIL readers can also benefit from a special discount code (details on opposite page), which entitles you to a significant reduction on the book’s retail price of £ 75
For many designers, historians and rail enthusiasts the original British Rail
Corporate Identity Manual is a revered object. It captures that moment in time when the corporate identity was first launched, when a modern all-embracing monolithic identity was applied to one of the UK’s biggest nationalised industries. Clearly they have an enduring respect for the corporate identity, but perhaps little real appreciation of the contribution the Manual itself made to the success of the corporate identity.
The Manual was designed to be a working tool. Although influenced by earlier corporate identity manuals produced by large American corporations, the British Rail Manual was, like the identity, one of the first of its kind in Europe. It set the standard for how large corporate identities are implemented but more importantly, how they are controlled.
British Rail was a huge organisation with nearly 400,000 employees at the time the new corporate identity was launched. Most of those employees had worked in one of the ‘Big Four’ railway companies before they were nationalised. They had already experienced the introduction of the ‘hot dog’ British Railways logotype as well as the heraldic lion crest which were both adopted for the newly nationalised organisation.
Implementing the new identity required the removal and replacement of all the old logotypes, symbols and numerous liveries. They had to be replaced strategically and quickly with new designs. The Manual explained the process and specified the applications, clearly and concisely. The first challenge, however, was to distribute the Manual to hundreds of divisional managers, train depots, in-house printers and sign manufacturers.
In an age without email, fax or even telex the Manuals were distributed by post or British Rail’s own parcel service, and queries about the designs or their application could only be answered by phone or by letter. Consistency in this initial implementation was vital. The quality and precision of information presented in the Manual was critical, as was the enthusiasm of the managers selected to oversee the work.
The Manual was structured to make it easy to use and easy to understand. Every design element or application was carefully explained and illustrated on individual pages. The pages were called Sheets (later referred to as Information Sheets) and each given a unique reference number. Supplied in multi-ring binders, the Manual was designed for future expansion where new or amended sheets could be easily added or obsolete sheets removed. In the 1980s a database of all authorised holders of the Manual was established so they could receive regular updates of new or amended Information Sheets.
As the British Rail Identity developed, the Manual eventually outgrew the first four volumes. A system for distributing copies of the Information Sheets, and supplying original artwork (on film or photo-mechanical transfer sheets), was set up to provide a call-off service for any department or division of British Rail that needed them.
This also provided a great degree of control of artwork distribution to external design
consultants, advertisers and printers.
For 20 years it was undeniably a successful system. The implementation of the British Rail corporate identity was thorough and consistent. On a nationwide basis this covered thousands of buildings (offices, depots, hotels and more than 2,500 railway stations) plus tens of thousands of rail and road vehicles. Individual printed items most likely ran into the millions.
By the mid-1980s a significant update of the Manual added several hundred new Information Sheets. The numbering system had to be amended to cope with this expansion, including further changes to allow for identification of sector-specific design. By this time the administration and updating of the Corporate Identity Manual required five or six dedicated staff. It was labour-intensive and slow.
By 1990 the new British Rail design management team introduced computers to try and streamline the administration process and digitise the Information Sheets. The Manual had become too big and could no longer be described as a manual. By this time the collection of Information Sheets filled more than ten filing cabinets - thousands of pages, pieces of artwork and assembled subsets of the Manual. It controlled the identity, but only by dictating and specifying every detail and design variation.
Like the British Rail identity the Manual had become inflexible and outdated. It rigorously maintained the application of a heavy monolithic corporate identity when the world was discovering a whole new approach to branding. Since 1982 British Rail had been developing operational sector brands such as InterCity, Network SouthEast, Railfreight and Regional Railways. These brands better expressed the function and character of their operation and the staff working in these sectors reacted favourably, showing great allegiance and enthusiasm for their new brands.
Of course, these new brands required their own guidelines and some efforts were made to adapt the Information Sheet system to support these. It didn’t really work, and the fastapproaching privatisation of Britain’s railways virtually killed off the British Rail Corporate Identity.
Despite rail privatisation the double arrow symbol proved its resilience and effectiveness. It survives as an identifier of UK rail stations and rail services and has always been used on tickets. The only thing missing is a set of detailed Information Sheets to control its every application and use.