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The Double Arrows at 53

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

This year one of the most iconic British logos celebrates its 53rd birthday. A design sketched on the back of an envelope on an London Underground journey by a young Gerry Barney.

It is easy to overlook the astounding modernity of the symbol in 1964, and the fact the logo has survived so long despite the pitfalls and changes of the past half century is a testament to its success and simplicity despite the fact the design masks a cunning complexity that is not appreciated upon casual glance. Often sneeringly referred to as “the barbed wire” or “crossed lines”, the logo in question is the indomitable “Double Arrow” logo of British Rail.

People talk of the sixties in reverent tones as a time of psychedelic wonder and empowerment, when life came out of the black and white of the past and exploded into young, hip modernity. This is possibly true for some well financed twenty somethings living in particular post codes in London around 1967, but for the rest of the world, it was not so clear cut. Britain’s railways were still operated mostly by steam trains. The railways were dirty and drab coloured, with a logo that resembled medieval heraldry rather than forward thinking rapid modern transit. Plans were afoot to totally transform the national network and the new corporate styling was launched before steam had even been consigned to the scrapyard of history.

The corporate redesign portfolio had been given to the Design Research Unit and Barney was, by his own admission, a lettering artist and not a designer. His boss had been unsatisfied with the suggestions made by his team and looked to others in the office for further ideas. Hence Gerry Barney sketched his idea on an envelope and tidied it up a the office before throwing it in with around 50 designs put together by the team. This was reduced down to a shortlist of 6 then a final 2. A design incorporating two circles with an arrow and Barney’s double arrow symbol.

The simplicity of the design is deceiving and the clever optical illusion can be explained

through Barney’s background in lettering rather than graphic design. The lines seem to be of the same thickness, but to maintain that illusion the diagonal lines actually taper away from the parallel lines. If you try to draw the logo for yourself you will quickly discover that it is not as easy as it looks to recreate it. In lettering if the “o´s” are drawn at the same height as other letters they look too small, and this attention to the unfilled space is what led to this design classic.

The rebranding exercise was enormous, and was carried out in tandem with the restructuring and transformation of the railway network and the logo along with the house colour palette and uniform text became ubiquitous. Everything from locomotives, stations, uniforms, tickets, cutlery and glasses were branded in the house style.

Barney had wanted to make the logo cover the entire side of locomotives in his early proposals but BR opted for small logos on standard blue, and the seventies are remembered in railway circles as the drab and dull corporate era. Ironically, as the eighties arrived and non-standard liveries started to emerge, one of the liveries considered the most attractive amongst railway enthusiasts was the Large Logo design, fulfilling much of Gerry Barney’s early vision way back in the 1960’s.

The logo became so recognizable that it even survived the dismantling of British Rail. The double arrows are still used to indicate railway stations across the country on road signs and maps. The copyright is held by the Secretary of State for Transport and used under license by the train operating companies. A design classic that has survived a perilous journey, from representing the death of steam to becoming synonymous with lateness and poor service to now being recognized not only as a classic design, but also one that is engrained on the social fabric and instinct of the nation. When operations passed to private hands, the successful bidder for freight operations became known as EW&S,

Latterly EWS (English Welsh & Scottish a seemingly long winded way of saying British Rail) and

their logo was the three heraldic animal heads of the countries of the island. Design, like fashion, works in cycles, even if the parallel lines of the double arrow remain resistant to such curves.

More information on the story of the classic design can be found at the National Railway Museum and the book "British Rail Designed" by David Lawrence

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