How does a Nation Became an Icon?


British style is recognized all over the world, and with good reason. What other country has its own font (Gill Sans) or a salient sense of style that permeates its capital city? What other nation has been using the same logos for decades, including the recognizable British Rail icon? Indeed, the UK is unique in that it was branded early and well by a design firm called the Design Research Unit. This firm created a wide range of logos that you likely pass every day.

What exactly did the Design Research Unit design? Almost everything in London! From the British Rail logo to every street sign in central London to pub signs across the UK, the DRU left its fingerprints on a variety of everyday aspects of British life. The DRU was the first modern design agency in the UK and had an integral part of helping the war recovery by streamlining and standardizing life in the UK.

The Design Research Unit was in business from 1942 to 1972, or a mere three decades. However, these decades were some of the most momentous in British history. It was the brain child of three well known artists: art critic Herbert Read, architect Misha Black, and graphic designer Milner gray. The group intended to combine art and industry into functional works of art, although they are probably known best for their logo design.

Postwar Britain was not merely an austere, impoverished land, but an idealistic one as well. The designs of the times are reflective of the simplicity and forward thinking feeling of the era. The UK government was in a time of change as well, creating national systems such as the National Health Service.

Because the nation was rebuilding from the damages of the war, there were many places for the DRU to focus their efforts. Four hundred pubs had to be rebuilt and redesigned, with the firm designing five different pub templates that all included the bold “slab serif” wordtype that we have all come to recognize. Companies from chemicals plants to the British Rail had to be rebuilt, redesigned, and rebranded—and the DRU provided all of these services. They also were instrumental even in the name of British Rail, which was changed at their advice from British Railways. The British Rail logo is so iconic that it continued to be used across the UK even after the privatization of the industry.

Design is more than an image, more than a field, and even more than the many companies and organizations that have graphic design logos and other images. Design has the power to change a nation and to create a very specific set of emotions in the public. This is a very powerful thing, the ability to turn hearts and minds either toward or against something. While this type of design is now used across the world, the UK and the Design Research Unit are the birthplace of this industry. Look around you the next time you walk through London; the signs are there, sometimes quite literally.