British Rail logo, by Design Research Unit

DESIGN LEGENDS #1 – THE DESIGN RESEARCH UNIT

I don’t want to come across all purist, but I’ve recently been thinking about the pioneering design agencies of the past, whose purpose was ‘design for the people’ not just design for other designers. These are the folk who helped change the public’s perception of design and understand its true value. It’s high time someone championed these guys, and it might as well be me, so welcome to my ‘Design Legends’ series.

British Rail corporate identity, by Design Research Unit

There’s always beautiful things going on in the world of design. As designers we see amazing work everyday thanks to the plentiful supply of design blogs that sit in our browser’s bookmarks. Don’t get me wrong, I love a beautifully designed book with a vast array of print techniques that will push a Printer to the edge of insanity. I am sometimes overwhelmed by the volume of online exposure to shiny foils, exposed spines and intricate die-cuts, but it’s a true craft and it’s great stuff to work on.

Let’s celebrate design in it’s purist form. Let’s forget (for a moment) about the beautiful self-commissioned design posters and concentrate on the task at hand – design for people, design for industry, design for social good.

Ilford branding, by Design Research Unit

I never tire of intelligent way-finding systems or well thought out brand work that helps businesses expand, employ and prosper. This is happening in our industry everyday, so I feel it’s only fair to mention the people who helped get us get here in the first place. These were the forward thinkers of their time, embracing the functionality and purpose of design, using it to communicate for the greater good. Where would Londoners be without the tube map? Too London-centric for you? Well, where would the rest of the country be without our motorway signs?

Design Legends No.1 in this ongoing series has to be The Design Research Unit (DRU) – the firm that branded Britain.

The Design Research Unit

The DRU were one of the first generation of British design consultancies combining expertise in architecture, graphics and industrial design. It was founded by the managing director of Stuart’s Advertising Agency, Marcus Brumwell with Misha Black and Milner Gray (designer) in 1943.

ICI logo, by Design Research Unit

The ethos of the DRU is explained in the following statement : “Like every aspect of modern industry, design should be a co-operative activity.” The group’s aim was not just to bring “art and industry” together but to produce design that was for everyone.

I’m sure you’ll know their work – The British Rail identity – they did that. Every street sign in London, they did them too, they branded over 400 pubs in London from identity down to the fabric on the chairs, they even worked on the temporary exhibition for Festival of Britain, inspiring the Millennium Dome. DRU provided the branding for all sorts of companies, from  ICI to Ilford Photographic Materials, but no doubt their most famous logo was for British Rail. It’s said that they even coined the phrase ‘corporate identity’.

Without people even noticing, DRU’s work had a deep impact on British society. A truly inspiring agency who’s ideas are still pertinent today.

Next up in Design Legends: Total Design.

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