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Features / Graphic Design

The New Look: Looking back at Roundel’s 1980s identity design for British Rail’s Railfreight

At the launch of the Design Business Association in 1986, John Bateson, a graphic designer and later partner at design agency Roundel, met a product designer who was working with British Rail’s Railfreight on a repainting scheme. To the comment on their “not really knowing what colour to paint the trains,” John suggested that it really depended on “what they were going to put on them, before they could know what colour to use”.

This was the beginning of Roundel’s identity design commission with Railfreight, a project run by British Rail’s now defunct Architecture and Design division, which was headed up by Jane Priestman. The intention was to convey the success and value of Railfreight, and its various sectors – distribution, petroleum, metals, coal and construction; and Roundel were to communicate that via both an inward and outward facing redesign that would change the perception of, and culture within, the organisation.

“The culture had been ‘dirt’. Steam railways were filthy, stations were filthy, so they were designed accordingly,” John says. “Jane Priestman said no to all that, which is why we now have white floors and white tiling in stations – because it rewards cleaning. We carried that through to Railfreight, the locos and everything. It seems like obvious stuff but it changed the culture.”

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Roundel: Railfreight identity design

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Roundel: Railfreight identity design

Each train belonged to a sub-sector and a depot. The sub-sectors were designed to be recognisable as a family –  with symbols containing the letter “F” which also formed an optimistic upwards arrow that sat within each mark. They rejected the drab, camouflage colours that had often been used, in favour of bright primaries that could be read at speed and from a distance. The inspiration came in part from the Mustang fighter jets employed during WWII, both in terms of markings and the need to express confidence and strength.
The marks were designed by Roundel and drawn by illustrator and Scraperboard artist Ron Mercer, who produced each element by hand. “The tone and form was the domain of Roundel, I was the artworker. I think that since the advent of the Apple Mac there has been some merging of design and artwork but in my day the two arms were quite separate,” he says.

The major Railfreight depots each had their own mascot, including a rat, horse, and cat – “I recall that the Stratford depot were particularly keen on having the Cockney Sparrow for theirs,” says Ron. They had long been key to their unofficial identities, and as part of Roundel’s identity design they restyled each of the mascots and established them as integral elements of the locomotive livery. They appeared as depot plates on the cab side, as well as on lapel badges, mugs, sports kits and signing.

“The mascots were made in chromium, bolted plates that rewarded cleaning,” says John. “The idea was to build a sense of pride in the work and their environment. The plates clarified that the trains were theirs, and prevented the cabs from becoming dumping grounds. It was all part of the culture change.” Previously, the macho culture at the depots had meant that the trains would go around rather than through the cleaning machines, dirty being the look of the day for locomotives. But the pride of ownership engendered through the depot mascots meant that the trains were maintained and rarely out of service, as were the depots themselves. As well as their symbols and mascots, each site and sub-sector had its own internal stationery, improved seating, televisions, washing machines and crisp, bright paint jobs. All of these small details instilled pride, respect and a sense of optimism in opinions on Railfreight, from both workers and the general public.

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Roundel: Promotional brochure

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Railfreight Christmas card

“The inspiration came in part from the Mustang fighter jets employed during WWII, both in terms of markings and the need to express confidence and strength.”

As part of the drive to launch the new identity, Roundel produced invitations, menus, “After Freight” mints, Christmas cards and a Railfreight calendar. The calendar was shot at various locations – on main-line bridges, at depots, in stone quarries and in front of power station calling towers. “We wanted to establish the trains as heroes. The drivers thought we’d shot train sets initially because they couldn’t believe the scale of the compositions or the operation. We’d have to shut the main-line and shoot overnight, it cost a tonne,” says John. “We lit the coal chimneys with flood lights on one night, which ended up getting us a visit from the local emergency services because someone thought the whole place was about to go up in flames. We had to say ‘Oh actually no, we’re just taking some pics!’, they weren’t best pleased so after that we only had an hour or so to get the shots.” The purpose was to further demonstrate a sense of heroism, value and pride in the work of and by Railfreight, and be another element of the work towards a culture change.

Roundel’s identity design had been commissioned in response to the changes in the UK’s manufacturing industries, and amongst the threat/atmosphere of privatisation. In an internal pamphlet describing “The New Look”, Railfreight’s director Colin Driver described how the British Rail board had issued a design policy statement stressing that “design, in its broadest sense, is fundamental to the efficiency of every aspect of the railway. From livery to to locos, mess rooms to engine sheds, this applies very powerfully to Railfreight. British Rail’s design director Jane Priestman points out that ‘to remain in business we must persuade very discerning customers of the ability of THIS business to perform better than any other.’”

Further elements of their promotion were a “Strategy and Image” conference and customer brochure. The conference was based on an “airforce theme” – a principle relevant because of the aesthetic inspiration, as well as “the ethos of team spirit, interdependence and pride”. Meanwhile the brochure described the weight of experience, competitive spirit and potential to be “poised for Europe” amongst sci-fi imagery in acid tones, produced using one of the first digital editing programs.

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Jane Priestman’s department, British Rail’s internal Architecture and Design resource, was one of the last centralised, public sector design departments. And the Roundel-designed brochure for A&D was fittingly of its time. The imagery was collaged by hand, and appears somewhat abstract and postmodern; the bins look like Corinthian columns, while the arches and landscape architecture reflect amphitheatres and palaces. Design for the stations is described in turn as adventurous, decorative and Classical, and it underlines British Rail’s policy of “good design [as] good business”: “Good design helps sell services, improves staff morale and brings about the clearest visual indication of control and commitment to quality performance,” said Anthony Howard, the design manager at British Rail A&D at the time.

This focus on quality and coherence, of the architecture, interior and graphic design being co-ordinated and driven by not only profit but pride seems archaic in the current climate of embedded or threatened privatisation. "Since privatisation the focus has moved towards marketing and commercial enterprise. Centralised control seems outdated and inflexible because it’s all changed. But now though we have lost much of the design clarity and visual cohesion that made for an integrated network,” says John Bateson. “Centralised control seems spooky now, because it’s all changed.” And while in a lot of ways it feels like a change for the worse, there are positives to be drawn. “Company identities can’t, and don’t need to be long-term anymore. The top-down ‘Chairman says’ stuff doesn’t really fly when a tweet can destroy a brand in a day. They have to listen and evolve, if you want to survive you have to be fleet of foot.”

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