British Rail Designed: 1948-97 is a new book written by David Lawrence that provides a comprehensive overview of the architectural, graphical, engineering and technological innovation of the British Rail Brand. Across 272 pages with hundreds of images, it is a rich and enthralling document of the final age of nationalised rail travel in the UK. Here, graphic designer Theo Inglis, who worked on the book with David, describes the process and decisions made when putting the book together.
“The cover was obviously going to be a huge factor in the design of this book, and actually ended up being the first thing I designed because of marketing and sales pressures. I knew instinctively that I wanted to use the British Rail colours ‘Publicity Red’ and ‘Publicity Blue’, and that there was a darker blue too which was very evocative. I knew there had to be the double arrow logo on there somewhere too, and that Margaret Calvert’s Rail Alphabet was going to be the only appropriate typeface for it. Beyond that it was quite hard to imagine what the right cover would be, it had to look like a new book about the history of British Rail rather than passing for an actual British Rail era piece of design itself, which is what some of my initial experiments tended to look like. David was really keen to use multiple images on the cover, which is the opposite to what most design book covers tend to go with, but I think it is too hard to sum up this particular topic in a single image. The images which David sent over to work with were so interesting that it was a real joy to use so many.
In terms of the design of the books interior, David had amassed such an amazing array of photographs and ephemera that I really wanted my layout to showcase these to their absolute best, but without making the text a sideshow. So a two column grid with ample whitespace made the most of the images, and we worked together very closely to select the best images and find their optimum sizes. I had quite a lot of freedom in terms of what images I felt were the most worthy of showcasing, but I’m lucky to have worked with an author with such a good eye for design who could help with design decisions and the general visual flow of the book.
The book was split into distinct chapters, the chapter title pages seemed like a good chance to use the Rail Alphabet again at a bigger size and to carry on the style of photographs colourised with the BR colour which I’d used on the cover. In this case the red seemed to work the best as it was so vibrant. I used the BR font again in the red for the headings, but it is far too heavy to work for the body copy and would never have been a viable option. I knew a serif was going to look too old-fashioned as the main typeface for the text in the book, but also didn’t want to use anything too contemporary due to the historic subject matter. In the end I selected Monotype Grotesque; it evokes the 20th century British subject matter and has some nice quirks but it is also really legible. The ‘grotesque’ style of typeface appeared quite a lot in the early BR ephemera that David had shown me, I’m also a big fan of how Herbert Spencer (who appears throughout the book) had used it in his magazine Typographica. To make it unjustified and ranged left was a natural decision once I’d chosen the typeface.
It was a dream project to design the definitive book on such an iconic subject, especially because I’m really interested in post-war design history. It was also a very daunting task given how many fellow graphic designers are obsessed with the subject matter and how particular the audience it has. At the same time, working with such great subject matter made it hard to do something which looked bad, but had I got it wrong (fingers crossed I haven’t) no doubt I would have been run out of town by the design community and the train enthusiasts working together in their joint fury."
British Rail Designed: 1948-97 is available from Ian Allan Publishing priced £35