Frank Pick (1878-1941)

Pioneer of Corporate Design for London Transport

Plaque erected November 23, 1951, by London Transport at St Peter’s School, York

The distinctive circle and bar logo of the London Underground is known the world over. It is one of the most recognised designs anywhere in the world. But how many of you knew it was the brainchild of a man from York? Yes, really.

Frank Pick was born in 1878 in Spalding, Lincolnshire. His father, Francis, was a draper who dreamed of being a lawyer. Instead, he transferred his ambitions to his eldest child. In 1883, the family moved to York and, in 1893, Frank won a scholarship to St Peter’s School.

In 1897 he was articled to York solicitor George Crombie. He qualified as a solicitor in 1902, but chose not to follow the legal profession his father had dreamed of. Instead, he joined the traffic statistics department of the North Eastern Railway in York. In 1904 he became assistant to the general manager, Sir George Gibb. When Gibb was appointed managing director of Underground Electric Railways Limited (UERL) in London in 1906, he asked Frank to go with him.

The London underground was expanding and the lines were operated by several companies. UERL ran the District Railway and, in 1906 and 1907, built three deep lines: the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway, the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway, and the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway.

Advertising and marketing were still relatively new ideas and their role in increasing sales was only just becoming recognised. In 1909, Albert Stanley (later Lord Ashfield), the general manager of the Underground Group, put Frank in charge of the company’s publicity and commercial advertising.

Ad revenue was a big part of the Underground’s income but there was no order to the placing of posters. Entrances to Underground stations and platforms were plastered with posters and notices so that even the name of the station was difficult to see. Frank’s solution was the creation of the distinctive station nameboard - the Underground “brand” that became possibly the world’s first example of ‘corporate identity’.

Initially the nameboard was a solid red disc with a central bar displaying the name of the station. Later, this evolved into the bar and circle device still in use today. Frank also decided that posters should be integrated into the station entrance and platform design.

Although he had no design training, Frank got to know the best printers and lithographers in London. Over the following decades, he commissioned posters from some of the leading artists and designers of the day. Early posters were designed to reassure the public about the safety of the Underground and the use of revolutionary electric lifts and escalators. Later they featured the destinations reached by the Underground – London Zoo, museums, galleries, parks and countryside.

Frank was aware of the artistic value of these posters and from the offered copies to the Victoria & Albert Museum. There was some sniffy resistance at first, but he eventually gained the support of Martin Hardie, curator of the museum’s prints and drawings. The V&A was given copies of the complete output of Underground posters - a unique archive.

After the First World War, Frank was made Joint Assistant Managing Director of UERL in 1921, then MD in 1928. When London Transport was created in 1933, he became vice-chairman and chief executive. In 1939, he oversaw the massive civilian evacuation scheme which involved moving 600,000 Londoners out of the city.

Frank Pick left London Transport in May 1940. On November 7, 1941, he died at his house in Hampstead.

The plaque to Frank Pick was put up by London Transport under the archway at St Peter’s School. The inscription says simply: “In tribute to Frank Pick, 1878-1941, a scholar of this school. He served his fellow-men, made transport an art and sought beauty and good design in all things.” Not a bad memorial, that.

Stephen Lewis