Designers on British Rail’s logo update: “The worst sustainability-by-numbers thinking”

National Rail raised eyebrows this week with a green revamp of its logo – we spoke to designers including Astrid Stavro and Matt Baxter about the change.

The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) has revealed an update to the National Rail logo as part of the rail service’s We Mean Green campaign.

RDG (the group that represents National Rail) unveiled the green-themed logo ahead of November’s COP26 summit, as part of an environmental campaign to encourage rail use.

The temporary redesign – which now features five tones of green – will be seen on station posters, board trains as well as through digital channels.

Courtesy of RDG

Though it’s a temporary measure, the update has drawn criticism, including from the original designer of the famed double-arrow logo, Gerry Barney. Barney, who was 24 when he designed the British Rail logo which was subsequently used by National Rail, told the Guardian that the green update is a “mess”.

He added: “I think that’s rubbish. I could understand it if they had just swapped red for green. But why on earth have they got that many colours? It’s a load of old bollocks.”

We asked designers whether they think the green update is an effective piece of communication.

“While no one can argue with trying to promote more environmentally-friendly ways to travel, this is another example of the ‘greenification’ by brands desperately trying to come across as more sustainable. People aren’t stupid and they just see through it. It’s actions, not colour palettes that matter, and until rail fares come down in price, ‘letting the train take the strain’ just isn’t an option for many people.

“This reminds me of all the rainbow-hued logos that have popped up recently – what was originally a nice idea soon became a bit meaningless and clichéd (and had the opposite effect of what the brands originally set out to do). It’s a difficult balance to strike, but when people feel like brands are trying too hard, it’s as bad as when they’re not trying hard enough – and both of those things will ultimately turn us as customers off.”

Astrid Stavro, partner at Pentagram

“I don’t really have anything positive to say about this. It’s just bad. The worst kind of sustainability-by-numbers thinking – just making something green. From a design point of view, frankly I think Gerry nailed it with ‘rubbish’, ‘mess’ and ‘load of old bollocks’. Horrible design on top of horrible thinking.

“And from an effectiveness point of view, what’s it trying to communicate? That taking the train is more sustainable than driving? Well honestly if we’re serious about sustainable travel we should be making rail travel cheaper, not increasing the prices while slapping a (multi-coloured) green logo on it.”

Emily Jeffrey-Barrett, founder at Among Equals

“I love this logo. Not that green one. That’s rubbish. The old one. It’s simply brilliant. It’s from an era of design that produced so many logos that we all love. It’s universal, it’s clear, it works hard and it makes people smile.

“The symbolism of movement within the British Rail logo is powerful because it is super single minded. It’s not layered with fancy messages or trying to please everyone who lays eyes on it. It just is. And that’s why we love it. Two lines, two alternate arrows, one colour, one message.

“Changing the colour to green (and not just one green), is plain lazy. And frankly feels pretty artificial in today’s era of design.”

Matt Partis, creative founder at Anagram

“The British Rail logo is gloriously ubiquitous. And, in fact, it’s this very ubiquity and instant recognition that means you can do pretty much anything you like to it. Like the buffers on an InterCity 125, you can hit it with almost whatever you fancy and it will survive intact. Turn it several shades of green for a while? Why not? Pop it bang in the middle of an ad campaign to get people on trains again? Sure, go for it.

“Crucially, these are all temporary changes. Intentionally short-lived amendments to the appearance or use of a much-loved marque for the duration of a campaign, and no more than that. Like the recent design Twitter hoo-hah about the Beanz Meanz More campaign, I think we’re in danger of getting hot under the collar about a temporary amendment.

“Great household brands have always had playful fun with their ubiquitous brand assets. Think of Coke rebadging its bottles with the names of its customers. Or Maccas gleefully deconstructing its ‘golden arches’. Nobody ever suggested that these were permanent changes. They’re all campaign-led, short-term subversions of ubiquitous symbols, typography and shapes. The purpose of these campaign-led interventions is to surprise us, to make us look, before returning back to their more familiar forms. If the end goal of all this is to get us talking, then it most definitely worked.”

Matt Baxter, creative director at Baxter and Bailey

What do you think of the logo revamp? Let us know in the comments below.

Hide Comments (18)Show Comments (18)
  • Terry Tibbs September 24, 2021 at 3:14 pm

    The post rationale approaching platform 1 has been cancelled due to lack of thought process.

  • andrew bainbridge September 24, 2021 at 3:29 pm

    I see you declined to publish the comments of the original designer ..which is a pity as he was spot on and to the point with his critique ..”it’s bollocks”

  • Martin Green September 24, 2021 at 4:41 pm

    Complicating a symbol by varying the shades of green lines that intersect the two parallel lines destroys the simple, plain and brilliant concept that symbolizes this transportation system to make another point (the ‘greening’ of a system’s approach to social and economic pressure to change its ways of doing business needs a slogan not the bastardisation of a symbol that works so well in expressing the physical function and method of an organization rather than a philosophical or social necessity to move with the times). Muddled thinking to say the leasT.

  • Rob Bradford September 25, 2021 at 8:52 am

    I think the new version, even if it is temporary, is awful. I dread to think how much money that has cost them!

  • mike dempsey September 26, 2021 at 1:30 pm

    Messing with such a perfect, long-established logo is uncalled for but the coverage it got in the Guardian last week has already given this green variation immediate recognition in advance of COP. That could have been the spin doctors intention? At least it hasn’t gone through one of the ‘money for old rope’ design exercises of fattening, italicising, thinning or, god forbid, redesigning it all together, like David Gentleman’s classic British Steel logo resulting in the most inept effort.

  • Steve Almond September 26, 2021 at 1:34 pm

    I actually agree with Matt. But… even though it is temporary, I agree with the others. It is a complete load of cringeworthy bollocks and fools nobody.

  • Keith Burgess September 26, 2021 at 2:47 pm

    I think the multi green tint version devalues the original which I believe is attributed to the Design Research Unit. Why it works so well is that it could be black on white or reversed if required. The essence of the identity is pared down to instantly express what it’s about.

  • Maxine Hayes September 26, 2021 at 3:50 pm

    I’m with Gerry Barney, it’s dreadful. It’s like the designer/agency is trying too hard. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! A simple one colour green would have sufficed. The different shades breaks up the single graphic making it more difficult for the eye/brain to evaluate.

  • James Souttar September 26, 2021 at 4:31 pm

    I seem to find myself more and more out of step with ‘the great and the good’ of the UK’s design industry. These days I’m only interested in craft and delight, while they’re still flogging the dead horse of ‘Brand’. And, for once, here is an example of high profile British design that I actually like. And what’s not to like about it? It’s sweet and it’s simple and it’s obvious. Thank Providence someone answered the brief without trying too hard, and didn’t turn it into a load of self-important marketing nonsense.

  • Anthony Sully September 26, 2021 at 4:54 pm

    I worked for Wolff Olins the same time as Gerry and he was justifiably proud of his design for the BR Logo. I agree with his comments and I cannot understand why a single green colour is not used. But such a revamp need not involve just colour. I cannot attach my proposal but very simply I would propose separating each diagonal arrow limb from the main two lines by a small gap – exploding it slightly. Together with the new green this would have an immediate appeal that the original design had but acknowledging its newness.

  • Stevie M September 26, 2021 at 7:12 pm

    I agree with Matt Paris. What’s the point!

  • Ron Cregan September 27, 2021 at 8:03 am

    Simply, this is not Design. Gross stupidity and a lack of respect.

  • Dj September 27, 2021 at 11:08 am

    Rebecca Cole, Director at Studio Blackburn, the design studio behind the green logo, said: “The campaign line conveys the fact that rail travel is genuinely the greener way to travel. Instead of simply paying lip service to the green agenda – the rail industry can credibly claim ‘We Mean Green’. The iconic double arrow logo designed in 1965 by Gerry Barney was at that time commissioned to breathe new life into railway industry. Its use today as the centrepiece of this campaign – depicted in a variety of green shades – signifies the importance of a modal shift to greener travel.”

  • Matt Baxter September 27, 2021 at 1:24 pm

    To follow up briefly on my ‘official’ comment above…

    It doesn’t take a lot of digging to discover that this recoloured logo and accompanying visual language definitely isn’t a permanent change to Mr Barney’s peerlessly marvellous marque. It’s an eight week campaign, no more. And the motivation behind that campaign – to get people using trains more frequently, as they’re less damaging to the environment than many other forms of motor transport – is a really good one.

    Which leads us to politics, and the good points made by Astrid and Emily above. As they point out, the thing we should be getting hot under the collar about is the meaning, truth and political will behind the campaign, rather than its immediate term visual execution (which, as a campaign, I rather like). Can Grant Schapps and his Conservative colleagues back up their designer-irritating colour meddling with some tangible evidence of a more “modern and green railway”? I really do hope so. Because the delayed, expensive and not especially pleasant train I was travelling on Friday while typing my original vox pop seemed to suggest otherwise. With Cop26 approaching and some crucial commitments ahead, perhaps the route we’re on might still change for the better.

  • Carl St. James September 28, 2021 at 10:27 am

    Sometimes a rubbish logo is as useful as a good one. Had the government done a really good job on this, would it even be in the Guardian or up for public discussion here?

    Every article and comment on the new logo is free press for the green campaign. Marketing costs a lot of money and the more free discussion you can generate, the better. Whether the logo is any good is irrelevent because here we are, 15 comments in still talking about it.

  • Adam Moore September 30, 2021 at 4:07 pm

    Read more about our eight week campaign here.
    Toggle for clarity.

  • Chris Smosarski October 3, 2021 at 7:14 pm

    To think that some designers think creating a temporary mess is a good thing is simply a nonsense. It’s a mess and that’s the end of it. What’s the purpose of fiddling with it? To destroy something temporarily is a good thing???

    Hope sense prevails!!

  • Robin Lawson January 3, 2022 at 12:57 am

    I guess the last guy doesn’t realise that most intercity 125s don’t have buffers.

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