Sharing 03: Railways

Recently I designed the new identity for this organisation, a charity and not for profit with the aim of reinstating a regular service to currently disused railway lines running through the city. The group formed in 2003 but after a bit of restructuring they’re planning on a relaunch later this year in a bid to attract more support and increase membership.

I’ve talked about trains on this blog before. We love our railways in the UK, but we seem to be confused about what a train is. It seems the ones we like are those funny old round ones powered by steam. The ones we decommissioned decades ago in favour of more efficient, faster and more relevant ones powered by diesel or electricity, the kind that don’t require a grubby man with a shovel to feed coal into a boiler.

It’s 2011, and these guys wanted to show that they were a modern group with modern aims. This isn’t a heritage railway project set up to satiate the desires of steam buffs. This is a practical, forward looking transport initiative working hard to bring a useful and relevant service to normal, everyday people who are at the minute reliant on cars or a patchy and infrequent bus service.

In search of modernity, naturally I headed straight to the 1960s. During the initial briefing it was agreed that the British Rail identity from that decade was something to aim for, so I got to work trying to capture that, but without using arrows of any description. Arrows are a hackneyed device at the best of times, but they’re all over the railways.

It’s been a funny job, this one. The organisation at the minute exists as a community campaign group, but in the future they may, or may not, be involved in the actual running of a railway. The best course of action for them to move forward is still unclear, so any identity has to be as open ended as the group is. It’s a strange client to have really – one that can’t say for sure what sort of client it might be in a years’ time.

Right now they don’t have much money kicking around, so bar a few higher budget bits of literature to get the word out, there’s probably going to be a lot of photocopies being handed around at various events the group attends. Any graphic design used in this way needs to be clear enough to survive such treatment, but at the same time it could well be seen in the future in all its full colour glory from a moving train window. So it has to stand up to that, it can’t look cheap.

Simplicity was key really. I had to focus specifically on those aspects of the group that are permanent. We know what the end result wants to be, we know the goal, so we’ll focus on that. That way, the content of the logo is also something to aim for.

Of course, as with all logos, it needed to be versatile and easily recognisable. And it needed to be of a style that distanced itself from the stuffy vintage image so frequently the distraction of the sector. This is a group that is serious about reinstating the rail service and goes about its business with an eye on the future, not on the past.

The stationery is similarly simple, with a bit more colour used on the batch of leaflets they’ve so far had printed up. I thought it was quite important that any literature they put out made their new, refreshed aims perfectly clear, so I pushed for the bold use of the mission statement on the front cover.

They only had 50 of these done. It was a bit of a last minute rush job for an event the group was attending, so they’re nothing special. To keep costs down they were printed on quite a flimsy stock and the layout is rather uninspiring because of the time constraints, the large amount of copy and a lack of inspiring imagery. Cheap and cheerful, they did their job fine but I’m working on something a bit more substantial at the moment which will involve a bit of photography and some nifty folding. I’ll share when I get the green light.

In an earlier blog, completely without context at that time, I posted a Harry Beck homage route map I produced for the group, designed to illustrate how their plan integrates with the city’s current and proposed public transport network. Apparently it’s proved quite a useful tool in convincing people how valuable the project is, which shows how a picture can say a thousand words. I also designed and built their website which can be seen here.

Sharing 01: Engineers

These guys are a new start up engineering consultancy specialising in the design of building services. No, I didn’t know what that was either until they told me. Basically it’s pipes, cables, ducts and the like – the sort of stuff mostly hidden away in engine rooms or concealed behind suspended ceilings. Yet, as they were keen to point out, without such services even the most architecturally magnificent building is nothing but a large box. A building is made by such things, they are fundamental to any architectural project and the larger the project, the more complex they become.

Where the expertise lies with this consultancy is at the design stage of such a project. They use bafflingly complicated CAD software to plan and design the complicated networks of facilities that keep a building’s inhabitants supplied with that which they take for granted. They ensure that water will flow from taps, that thermostats will adjust temperatures, that switches will make bulbs glow, and they ensure it happens as efficiently and reliably as possible.

These are the qualities I used to direct the design of the logo. I let logic drive the project in much the way they themselves do with their work. Engineering isn’t art. It’s not about personal opinion, it’s a science. The only way to do something is the right way, and these chaps seem quite passionate about, and justifiably proud of, their ability to do just that.

I decided therefore that pure logic should be the only consideration of any design I did. This wasn’t the time for expression or creative indulgence. There was a job to do. A job I wanted to do in the same way the client does theirs.

First things first then, I needed a grid. I wasn’t going to do this by eye. Even my early sketches couldn’t be done by eye. Everything had to behave itself from the very beginning, so the grid came first. With that in place I started looking at the content. The brief stated that the logo was to be the initials of the company directors, the content was set. So I knew what it needed to be, I knew the grid it needed to conform to. Now I needed a method of constructing that content.

In the world of engineering an effective method of improving efficiency is to employ modularity, using fewer but more versatile components. So I did the same. The stylised initials are built of modular construction, with the design using only two separate components – the square and the quarter-circle.

The accompanying typeface is a mixture of Bold and Thin Helvetica Condensed, chosen in this instance for its obvious legibility. The type conforms to the same underlying grid that shapes the graphic, tying the whole logo together in one cohesive form.

With legibility a priority, the flat colour and the simple composition make for a scalable logo that should survive being used across all media, from a favicon to the side of a Transit van. Driven by pure logic, efficiency and order, I suppose it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that they went for my first proposal. After all, engineers will be the first to point out that it’s quite hard to disagree with logic.

It’s Logo, not Lostop.

There’s every possibility that by the time you read this it will be on a different site to the one I wrote it on. At the time of writing my blog is called ‘Sprungseven’, but I intend to change everything to my own domain at some point in the near future, by which time the blog should carry my real, given name; the one sewn into my PE kit.

The story behind the name ‘Sprungseven’ is a boring and irrelevant one, as I’m sure are the stories behind many hastily decided net handles. It is however an online name I’ve used for some years in order to allow anonymity from the cyber stalking so prevalent on the various chat forums and social networking sites I’ve once frequented and long since abandoned.

So if you’re reading this and wondering what on earth ‘Sprungseven’ is, it used to be the name of this blog. Sorry if that’s a little confusing, but forgive me for not having too much sympathy. You’re from the future – you have hover cars for crying out loud, how bad can your life be?

To those reading this in its original context around the time of first publication, I’m sorry to have wasted three paragraphs’ worth of what I imagine to be your valuable time. And though it’s hard, try not to be jealous of the swanky future readers above – they might sneer at our primitivity from the seats of their gleaming alloy aircars but the zombie apocalypse is a lot sooner for them than it is us.

Preface over.

Branding is the aspect of graphic design I’m most interested in. Specifically, I’m fascinated by the process of Logo design. It’s often said, and I agree, that the ultimate expression of the graphic designer’s art is the design of a good logo. In my opinion there is no greater skill within the industry than condensing an entire company image – with all the complexities that will invariably entail – down into a single instantly identifiable symbol.

In fact my main professional aspiration is to design a truly good logo. If I can one day put my name to something as clever and elegant as the BR double arrow, the Fedex Arrow, the UPS parcel, the Shelter H or the More Th>n more than, I’ll die a happy man.

That might seem like an unlikely achievement but I’m still young. As the More Th>n designer himself says, “identity designers don’t quite find their feet until later in their twenties”, so by that reckoning I have about a year before it clicks and I suddenly find myself crushed under the delightful weight of a thousand yellow pencils. Until that inevitability I suppose I must keep at it, playing around with logos whenever I get the chance in a hope that my skills develop.

One such recent play came about during a bit of a dry spell. I was eager for a bit of branding work but the only projects coming my way seemed to be editorial design. Though I enjoy editorial stuff I was starting to feel a bit of logo withdrawal, so decided to find something to design. Sprungseven would get its first logo.

One of the most satisfying aspects of logo design is when a gift presents itself to you. Finding it can be like a puzzle the designer has to decode. Sometimes, if you look long enough a solution pops right out of the text, offering the perfect opportunity for a simple, elegant design. Sprungseven offered just such a gift. When set in Helvetica, the numerical ‘7’ has a graceful curve to its upright, rather like the graceful curve of a tensioned leaf spring; a length of metal deflected under pressure, ready to twang back straight at the first opportunity.

In my sketchbook I began to scribble various ideas, all the time trying to graphically represent the springiness of that character. I drew dodgy leaf springs in the ridiculous hope that the general public is as familiar with the rather outmoded method of vehicle suspension as I am. I drew comic book style wobble lines attempting to show the pressure, the potential energy stored in that vertical. I tried ugly whiz lines and awkward blurred overlays. I doodled a storyboard idea, with frames showing the 7 springing back to it’s ‘original’ shape (similar to an upturned uppercase L). I had practically drawn a cell animation.

It was a mess of an idea. The whole design relied entirely on motion, and here I was trying to show that on a static canvas, all the time categorically failing to adhere to those rules of simplicity and elegance always so obvious in my favourite logos.

“Oh blow it” I resigned, casting my pen down across the desk, sitting back in my seat. “Why can’t it just move? It would be so much easier if logos could move. Why can’t logos move?” I studied the page. “Actually, why can’t logos move?”

Can logos move? I’m tempted to say yes. In 2010, given the right circumstances, why not? In this instance, certainly. Sprungseven has no offline presence in any form. The logo never appears in print. If it exists only in the virtual world, surely a logo need never be static?

I do recognise that there is no shortage of logos that animate. Some of the most familiar logos have animated versions.

There are plenty of logos that can move. But is there room for logos that must move?

Today printed media is rapidly losing out to digital media. Magazine and newspaper publishers struggle to get themselves on the iPhone and the iPad in the hope of tackling the ever dwindling sales threatening their continued employment. High street record shops struggle to keep their doors open while MP3 download figures soar. It’s no surprise when you consider that there now exists an entire generation of consumer that has grown up without that in-built requirement, that feeling of satisfaction to actually hold something physical, to have it sat on a shelf in order to claim ownership.

I’m as clueless about the future of media as everybody else except Jobs, Ive and Schmidt, (well, perhaps I’m a bit more clued up than my mum but that hardly makes me an extra from The Jetsons) but it certainly makes you wonder what changes are around the corner. I must admit to feeling slightly scared about it. The rules have changed – the industry as we know it is transforming rapidly and beyond almost all recognition. It feels as if the rug is being yanked from beneath our feet, and it’s quite disconcerting.

But do you know what? My fears are overwhelmed by excitement. Just a few years ago the thought of designing a logo incapable of standing still would have been laughable, but now it doesn’t seem so daft.

There are a heck of a lot of good logos out there. Sometimes it can be hard to think of new ones without stepping on the toes of those already in use. Often you’ll find a nice solution only for a colleague to walk past your desk and instantly break your heart and crush your spirit by saying those two words most feared by genuine graphic designers: “Been Done”.

Perhaps then as we enter the age of motion-friendly media, an age where timelines play an equal role in design alongside X, Y and Z coordinates, we’re open to a whole new dimension of graphic design opportunity.

Surely there can’t be a designer on the planet who doesn’t find that fantastically liberating.

Addition: Interestingly, it would still be possible to make printed versions of a moving logo using Lenticular Printing. So as it happens, logos don’t even really need to stay still on the printed page. Well, as long as your production budget stretches far enough. Google’s first hit for ‘lenticular business cards’ gave me a quote of £2500 for 2500. A quid per card – eek!