Frank Pick was a giant of 20th century London. Like Haussman in Paris and Moses in New York he changed the face and function of his metropolis.
When Pick became publicity officer for the London Underground (known then as Underground Electric Railways Company of London Limited) in 1908, the trains ran on steam, through dark, noisy, confusing stations – The Times compared using the service to
‘a mild form of torture‘
Pick took this struggling entity and through his vision and leadership transformed it into what the historian Nikolaus Pevsner called
‘the most famous and respected transport system in the world’
Through advertising, branding, architecture and integrated design he changed the public perception of the Underground and profoundly affected the growth and success of London town.
‘The test of the goodness of a thing is its fitness for use. If it fails on this first test, no amount of ornamentation or finish will make it any better; it will only make it more expensive, more foolish’
Pick streamlined everything. From his intuitive advertising campaigns, to the placement of rubbish bins in stations, no detail was too trivial.
Well known for working long days, he often finished in the early hours of the morning, inspecting a far-flung station, checking that his instructions had been actioned accurately.
Every element of design, architecture, typography, placement and image was dictated by Pick. Variations of his implementations are still in place today.
‘After many fumbling experiments I arrived at some notion of how poster advertising ought to be. Everyone seemed quite pleased and I got a reputation that really sprang out of nothing’
Pick wanted a typeface that would ensure that posters and signage weren’t mistaken for advertisements.
Edward Johnston (above) fulfilled Pick’s request for bold letters, that were Classic, Modern and functional. The Underground typeface (now called Johnston Sans) is based on ancient Roman letter forms, but the lack of serifs and clear legibility make it unmistakably of the 20th Century. The integration of Johnston Sans was so successful a version of it is still in place today.
Before Pick, advertisements and posters were placed anywhere and everywhere. Stations weren’t properly marked, causing confusion.
Pick neutralised the chaos of the Underground stations by rationalising the placement of all posters and signage. He experimented with size, placement and arrangement in order to ensure that every station was immediately recognisable and easy to navigate.
Pevsner dubbed Pick
‘the ideal patron of our age’
He commissioned iconic Underground posters by László Moholy-Nagy, Edward McKnight, Man Ray and MacDonald Gill. And he chose Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and Henry Moore to create sculptures for the new London Transport headquarters at 55 Broadway.
Pick commissioned designer Harry Beck to create a map that made the confusing underground system easily digestible. The map was originally considered too radical in 1931, but the initial trial run proved massively popular with the populous – every contemporary transport map in every major city follows from Harry Beck’s vision.
Pick spent the last few years of his life applying his organisational skills to the war effort. He headed up the Ministry of Information briefly and oversaw the evacuation of thousands of children from London to escape the Blitz. He died in 1941 from a brain haemorrhage.
Frank Pick’s creative and analytic mind, guided the progress of early 20th Century London. Through a rational, but never rigid application of patronage and experimentation he established new models for branding, management and effective implementation and literally changed the world.