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As head of the London Underground in the 1910s and 1920s and of the newly merged London Transport in the 1930s, FRANK PICK (1878-1941) was instrumental in establishing the world’s most progressive public transport system and an exemplar of design management.

From the red, white and blue roundel that has symbolised the London Underground since the 1910s and the diagrammatic map which enabled 1930s Londoners to find their way around the fast-expanding underground train network, to publicity posters and upholstery fabrics created by famous artists such as Man Ray and Edward Nash, many of the best known – and best loved – images of London were commissioned by one man, Frank Pick.

Hailed by the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner in 1942 as “the greatest patron of the arts whom this century has so far produced in England and indeed the ideal patron of our age”, Pick disdained formal honours and refused to accept both a knighthood and a peerage. His working days were long and arduous, often ending in the early hours of the next morning with a ‘spot inspection’ of a far flung station to check that the staff had followed his specifications down to the tiniest detail of the signage and litterbins.

He had no experience in the field, but Gibb gave him the job after Pick had complained that the company’s marketing strategy was inconsistent. Pick began by deploying a successful promotional strategy of the North Eastern Railway, which used coloured lithographic posters to persuade people to travel to seaside resorts, like Scarborough, on its network. As so many Londoners had no choice but to use the Underground to get to work, Pick realised that the easiest way to increase passenger traffic was to persuade them to use it in their leisure time for day trips and weekend jaunts to parks, museums, cinemas, suburban beauty spots and historic houses.

Pick set aside some of the advertising poster hoardings in Underground stations for the company’s use and filled them with colourful images of London’s attractions. The first posters were designed by freelance commercial artists employed by the printers. Pick recognised that the posters would be more effective if each was designed in the same graphic style, and that it would be less confusing for passengers if they were positioned in particular parts of the stations. He installed illuminated boards at the entrances for London Underground’s own posters and maps. Other advertisements were restricted to special grids on platforms and passages to distinguish them from Underground signage. “After many fumbling experiments I arrived at some notion of how poster advertising ought to be,” Pick recalled years later. “Everyone seemed quite pleased and I got a reputation that really sprang out of nothing.”

Another priority was helping passengers to navigate the new network. By the early 1930s, the London Underground network had expanded so much that it was increasingly difficult to squeeze all the new lines and stations into a geographical map. Passengers complained that the existing map was crowded, confusing and hard to read. Having decided that the network was too big to be represented geographically, Pick commissioned Harry Beck (1903-1974), who worked for London Underground as a draughtsman, to devise a new diagrammatic means of doing so.

Basing his map on an electrical circuit, Beck represented each line in a different colour and interchange stations as diamonds. The crowded central area was enlarged for legibility and the course of each route was simplified into the form of a vertical, horizontal or diagonal. Concerned that a diagrammatic map would be too radical, Beck’s colleagues suggested that it be introduced on a trial basis as a leaflet in 1933. It proved so popular that it was swiftly adopted as the standard Underground map and Beck continued to refine it until the late 1950s. Variations of his original design are still used by the undergrounds in New York, Stockholm, Sydney and London today.

“No exhibition of modern painting, no lecturing, no school teaching can have anything like so wide an influence on the educationable masses as the unceasing production and display of London Underground posters over the years,” pronounced Nikolaus Pevsner.

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