A conversation about brand short-hands and symbols with a client this week led me to writing this article which explores the origins and importance of visual equities in brand design, a discipline often known as semiotics.
When someone mentions Florence Nightingale, one particular image likely comes to mind: a caring presence, head covered by a shawl, holding a lamp as she ministers to patients in the dark. The “Lady with the Lamp,” as she became known and this image still serves as a symbol for nurses everywhere. But what is the connection between Florence Nightingale and brands?
For every night-time hour Nightingale spent burning the midnight oil to help a sick soldier, she likely spent another doing something surprisingly different: working on some of the world’s first fabulously persuasive infographics. In addition to caretaking and advocating, Nightingale was a dedicated statistician, constantly gathering information and considering compelling graphical treatments to compare and present it.
In August of 1856, Nightingale headed home from her famous stint at Scutari hospital in Turkey, where, while working with injured and ill soldiers from the Crimean War, she successfully lobbied to improve conditions and to expand the role of nurses. Upon her return to Britain, she was greeted as a hero and luminaries were eager to donate to training funds established in her name.
But in private, she had two things on her mind: death and statistics. Even if the most recent war had ended, there would be more, she reasoned, and without some kind of permanent reform, Nightingale feared all future wars would look much the same – full of needless deaths.
Nightingale had always had an affinity for math and as a child, she filled countless notebooks with tables of data about the fruits and vegetables in her garden.
Her months in the war hospitals of Crimea provided her with plenty of opportunities to gather information about the sick and the wounded and those that died and changes in society provided the perfect opportunity for her to share her findings.
In 1834, London scientists founded the London Statistical Society which aimed at “procuring, arranging and publishing facts,” in order “to illustrate the condition and prospects of society.”
Then three years later, the country set up a General Register Office to record births, deaths, and marriages. Soon, journalists and politicians were comparing sets of numbers in order to demonstrate particular correlations – between education and crime for example or relationship status and longevity.
When, in February of 1857, the Secretary of War reached out to Nightingale and asked her to “communicate her opinions” about hospital treatments in Crimea, she saw her chance and she began work on what would become ‘Notes on Matters Affecting Health, Efficiency & Hospital Administration in the British Army’, an 850-page report that combined her stories and observations with tables, graphs, and charts.
Creating the report took her two years of near-constant work. It also taught her something surprising – far more Crimean War soldiers had died from preventable diseases than from anything else, including combat. What’s more, after a sanitary commission was sent to Crimea to clean up the hospital, death rates plummeted.
After she completed her report, Nightingale worked hard to turn its conclusions into common knowledge, privately distributing it to influential people and writing several more reports.
When she received pushback from army doctors, who thought sanitary measures a waste of money, she even leaked some of her charts to the press.
Eventually, Nightingale defeated her critics and her findings won out and by the 1880s, sanitation standards in the British Army had greatly improved. Soldiers were given the space and time to wash their clothing, bedding, and selves more regularly, among other reforms and these gains had spilled over into the general population as well.
As the statistician Jil Matheson told the Guardian in 2010, “the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ was also a lady with powerful ideas”—and it’s those ideas that truly helped Britain shine. And indeed the statistical work of Florence Nightingale saved many lives.
Many years later another individual would rise to the challenge of creating pioneering infographics and like Florence, their job was something rather different.
The tube map is a London icon. Technically it’s not really a map but a diagram, as it doesn’t reflect the real geography of London at all accurately, but its clear, colour-coded lines and friendly curves shape the way most of us visualise the capital.
But the map wasn’t always so accessible. As the independent railways of the 1800s merged into a single system, the first map, published in 1908, looked like this:
It was, self-evidently, a mess. The map showed all the important central stations (including several that have since closed down or changed names), but it didn’t make it easy to find your way around. Station names had to be written in small text, often at odd angles so they could be crammed in between awkwardly twisting lines.
The map also omitted stations further out from the centre, for reasons which become obvious when you look at a later map that tried to show more of the network.
As you ‘zoom out’ from the centre of London, you end up with a huge amount of wasted space toward the edges, and an illegible crush in the middle.
In 1926, a map-maker named Fred Stingemore set out to improve matters by regularising the spacing between stations and allowing himself some artistic licence with the routes of the various lines. The result was a map that no longer represented the true shape of London — and thus couldn’t be superimposed on a street map, as earlier attempts had been — but did allow more stations to be represented with larger text:
Stingemore’s work was clever, but its impact was far from earth-shattering: the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL), which operated the tube, continued to publish large geographical maps alongside handy pocket-sized copies of his diagram.
The man who created the tube map we know today was Harry Beck. Formerly an engineering draughtsman for UERL, he lost his job with the Underground in the late 1920s as a result of funding cuts but he retained an interest in London’s transport system, and with time on his hands, set about on a project to “tidy up” the tube map by — as he would later recall — “straightening the lines, experimenting with diagonals and evening out the distance between stations”.
He also limited all angles to either 45 degrees or 90 degrees, all station names where shown horizontal and he used one size of font for all station names, breaking with previous convention where interchange stations were indicated by larger type.
In 1931, he finished drawing his first tube map based on these principles:
There are plenty of differences between Beck’s first effort and the map we know today. Station names are all in capitals, as was customary at the time, every station is marked with a ‘blob’, and interchanges are shown with multiple circles. All the same, much more of the network is represented, and the spirit of the modern map is detectable.
Although Beck’s map had been entirely a personal endeavour, he was encouraged by friends to send it in to UERL for consideration.
The company, in its wisdom, promptly returned it, explaining that it was not interested in such a “revolutionary” map.
But Beck didn’t give up: the following year he tried again, and this time the company agreed to buy the design off him for just over £10 — equivalent to around £600 today.
In the process of preparing the map for publication, a few adjustments were made: stations without interchanges were now shown with ‘ticks’ instead of blobs, and the handwritten type evolved to something very similar to the font used today. Interchanges, for some reason, became diamond-shaped. The result, published in 1933, is instantly familiar:
Originally distributed as a folding pocket-card, the first Beck map came with a slightly cautious explanation on the front: “A new design for an old map. We should welcome your comments.”
In the event, Beck’s map was a clear hit: the original print run of 750,000 was snapped up in a month, requiring a further 100,000 to be printed almost immediately.
As it stood, Beck’s tube map needed no improvement, but refinements were continually being worked in, particularly as new lines and stations were added and the geographical extent of the network expanded.
None the less, his pioneering grasp of information and how to present it has surpassed numerous attempts to improve it and his work still helps millions of passengers make sense of London every day, some 80 years since it was first published.
Both Florence and Harry understood really the key principles of visual information communication and their founding principles are so relevant to brand design today where the challenge is to be quickly understood and to do so in an engaging, entertaining and compelling way.
Many brands use icons and symbols, in addition to or in place of the brand identity – a rapid shorthand to product identification and stand–out of which the Nike swoosh is the most famous.
And packaging shapes can also provide a visual shorthand and in some instances become a valuable brand equity, as is the case with the iconic Coca-Cola bottle.