The evolution of design standards on the Underground

Source: RTM Dec/Jan 16

RTM talks to Gareth Powell, London Underground’s director of strategy & service development, about the new ‘Design Idiom’ for the network and how it is being put into practice.

London Underground stations have always had a blend of individuality and common characteristics. Even casual users of the network can spot that many lines have their own distinct architectural styles, and that station design in central London differs from the suburbs – while the real buffs know a Holden station from a Leslie Green, and their Heaps from their Suburban Clarkes (bonus points if you can name the only two stations whose style is known as ‘Late 1970s’). 

Now, a new ‘Design Idiom’ consisting of nine key principles has been agreed for future design, refurbishment and repair of London Underground (LU) stations, which will also have a bearing on other parts of the TfL estate, including London Overground and the DLR. 

The Idiom is about finding “the crucial balance between network consistency and local specificity,” according to David West from Studio Egret West, which worked with Gareth Powell and his team at LU on the new design principles. 

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‘Representing the evolution of the city it serves’ 

Powell, LU’s director of strategy & service development, told RTM: “There are many things that make cities great, but one of the things that the Underground can be very proud of is how, at various times in its history, various people have taken quite a lot of care about how the stations and the trains and the overall network looks. 

“What’s great about it is the variety of different styles of architecture and design today on the Underground, which reflects the different communities and locations and the history and evolution of London. It represents the evolution of the city that it serves, in a sense. With the Design Idiom, we want to make sure we take care of that looking backwards, but also that we can continue to be a part of that successful integration into the city, going forward.” 

After appointing Studio Egret West as its design agency on the project in mid-2014, the initial work focused on consultation and feedback, talking to staff across all sorts of roles about design, and about keeping any changes practical, good value, positive for staff and for passengers, and easy to maintain.

These conversations became the basis for some cartoon-like representations of people’s Underground experiences, which were gradually boiled down into themes, and ideas about what people valued and what could change. 

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Further work solidified these concepts into the nine key principles, and an entire catalogue of options and guidelines for stations, from layout and lighting to materials and colour. 

Design language 

Entirely new stations, such as those being built at Battersea and Nine Elms, will be recognisably ‘Idiom’ in their look and feel, but it will be gradually applied everywhere. LU will use it as the design bible for “every style of station and project, from small-scale repairs to major refurbishments”, it says. 

Powell said: “People will see this design ‘language’ at stations, particularly if it’s a new station and therefore it’s adopting a new palette – we call it the 2015 Palette. 

375 MAP

Click the map to see an enlarged version. Credit: Transport for London

“We’re using it already. In fact, we’re also going to use it when we start doing refurbishments to stations and so on. 

“We just opened the Central Line platforms at Tottenham Court Road, and of course that station is very advanced now. But even there, where we can, we’re using the [Design Idiom] principles, because it’s not about necessarily ripping everything up and starting again – it’s about how you adapt the existing space, even if you’re doing a patch repair to an existing tiled wall.” 

Light touch 

One aspect of the new design principles that has grabbed attention is lighting, with LU determined to drop its traditional wash lighting, which can be harsh and overly bright, to move towards pool lighting that emphasises certain design features and can be used to aid passenger information and understanding. 

Powell explained: “Lighting can be very, very useful when defining a space and giving it a different sense, a different feel. An example is Westminster station: one of the things that makes that station on the Jubilee Line so evocative is the fact that it has these great big pools of light, rather than wash light – which is what we’ve had historically. 

“So, as we roll this out, we’ll be lighting the spaces differently, drawing attention to things like the gatelines, or to escalators, or to information customers want. In the majority of cases, we will start to put customer information within a spherical backdrop. Over time, that will give a kind of language to the network, so that when customers are entering a station for the first time, looking for maps or information or places where staff are standing to be able to help them, those will be easily identifiable by their backdrop and consistently so across stations.” 

Idiom Park

Operating a live network and curating a living museum 

Powell said that the long history and heritage of design on the Underground meant that LU these days is not just about construction, but also curation. New design principles and a fresh palette does not mean losing what makes individual stations and lines unique and interesting, he insists. 

The Idiom text – itself a 225-page fusion of design, illustration, explanation and imagery – will be a ‘living’ document. It says that while some aspects of what it has envisioned, such as ticket hall ‘halos’, already exist or are being designed, other elements are yet to be created. These include canopies and welcome mats at station entrances. It adds: “There remains work to do to try to improve the way we locate and install other items, such as fire equipment, on our stations. Some areas, such as acoustics in stations, are yet to be investigated. This could potentially have a huge positive impact on our customers’ ability to hear information and announcements. 

“As the Idiom begins to be used more widely, other questions may arise which need to be incorporated into the document. And, inevitably, as technology develops, new design opportunities which have not been considered here may become available. We will also be working to extend these principles to London Overground and DLR stations, which will give our customers a more consistent experience as they travel across TfL services.” 

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Decisions and priorities 

We asked Powell how design is prioritised if it comes into conflict with other TfL concerns, such as safety, value for money or performance. He told us that it would not be a question of weighing these factors up against each other, but instead that good design can help with each of them. 

He said: “It isn’t something that’s in conflict. In fact, it’s a great place for everybody who works on the stations – be they engineers, project managers of external architects and others when we’re doing with developers and so on – to be able to start. 

“Whatever you do on a station – whether it’s for safety, for customer flow, or whatever – you have to design it. There has to be a layout and a specification of wall materials, floor materials and so on. What the Design Idiom gives us is a language and a framework – it is a guide within which to develop all of those things you’ve referred to. 

The scale of LU’s investment programme means many stations will be changed and adapted in the coming years to keep pace with growth in passenger numbers and evolving needs. But all station projects exist within constraints, physical and financial, and the Design Idiom explores how to make the best of what is available, Powell said. “That’s what this Design Idiom is – it’s about that sense of ‘wholeness’ that Studio Egret West describe.” 

Indeed, the Idiom covers not just material choices and things like “multi-sensory experiences”, but also more prosaic and practical issues like modular design and construction, to keep costs down. It also considers maintainability, and ensuring design choices look good a decade of dirt later, not just on the day the ribbon is cut. 

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From 1863 to 2015 – to 2163 

Powell concluded our interview by saying: “These spaces we are creating are used by millions of people every day, so we’ve got a responsibility to [make changes] very thoughtfully, and to make sure – for not only the customers that use it, but for the staff who work in these places day-in, day-out – that they have an environment that’s fit for purpose, and something that adds to their experience rather than detracts from it. 

“The London Underground was vital for the city when it was first created 151 years ago, and it’s essential today. I’ve no doubt it’ll be essential in the future. As things move on, as technology develops and the needs of our customers move on, so the spaces we have need to evolve to suit that. 

“The principles of good design don’t change over time, but what does change is the actual nature of what’s needed in these spaces. No doubt in 10, 15, 20 or 100 years’ time, things will have moved on and people will want to do different things with the system. But I hope when they do it then, they do it in a careful way that preserves the heritage we’re laying down right now.”

 The nine LU Design Idiom principles

  • Achieve Balance Across the Network;
  • Look Beyond the Bostwick Gates;
  • Consider Wholeness;
  • Prioritise Comfort for Staff and Customers;
  • Delight and Surprise;
  • Use Materials to Create Atmospheric Spaces;
  • Create Ambience with Lighting;
  • Integrate Products and Services; and
  • Prepare for the Future.

An exhibition of the Idiom in action will be open at Platform, 1 Joan Street, behind Southwark Underground station, on the second Friday and Saturday of each month in the first quarter of 2016, from 11am to 7pm, or by appointment via: [email protected]

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Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]


Lutz   19/02/2016 at 18:54

The interior colour scheme of blue/bronze in the "2015 Palette" looks terrible - the exterior scheme is not bad, but neither keys with the history, and they both look more like an attempt by the design studio at self-publicity.

Peter Scott   29/02/2016 at 10:32

LU should remember that the white centre to the 'roundel' station sign was there for a reason - to make the station name stand out when displayed against battleship grey walls. At new / refurbished stations the white centre to the signs is missing, replaced by an expensive 'design studio' silhouette version.

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