Keeping London on the move
Editorial

Keeping London on the move

Visual communications are an often-overlooked way to stop crowded cities from grinding to a halt, as this example of a campaign for Thameslink illustrates.

London’s transport network is a remarkable feat of engineering, planning and delivery. It should be a source of pride to Londoners: not only does the city have a history of innovation in this sector – including the world’s first underground railway – but the whole system continues to work, despite a creaking legacy infrastructure and the vast numbers of people using it every day.

Yet the city’s transport network is often a source of misery to millions and is continually dogged by controversy. Black cabs rail at the rise of Uber. No one can decide where to site a new airport runway. Tube strikes see Londoners discovering their city on foot, while calls to re-nationalise the railways grow ever more insistent. ‘Boris Bikes’ cause accidents, pollution is said to cause large-scale early mortality, and plans for garden bridges are allowed to morph into corporate cash cows. All the while, the Tube network roars on below our feet, last year managing a staggering 1.265 billion journeys.

Proposed solutions to these perennial problems tend to focus on logistics and engineering. The role of visual communications in keeping London moving is often underplayed, but very often people just want to know when, how and what will affect them, and how to work around it. Communication is critical.

Thameslink – delivering a tough message

Take Thameslink. In 2008, the decision was taken to radically overhaul the company’s First Capital Connect train routes to help make travelling to and across London a better experience. While in the long term the programme would improve customer journeys, reconciling that with many years of disruption was a tough message to make positive.

When our agency, Evolve, was brought in on the project, the first step was to research the client’s needs before strategising. That’s how we devised an approach of empathy mixed with straight talking.

We had worked with First Capital Connect for a number of years so knew their audiences well. Every month a National Passenger Survey (NPS) is carried out to gauge customer sentiment, which revealed that when people were asked about their knowledge of the Thames Link programme awareness was at 25%.  To rectify this we focused on tone of voice, as the NPS highlighted that human voice was missing in the existing communications.

We recognised the need to empathise with commuters’ frustrations at a 12-year long programme of upgrades, but also to highlight the positive benefits it would eventually bring. These messages needed to be delivered in a distinctive way to grab the attention of passengers, who are already bombarded with messages from all sides.

We chose a number of expressions, including anger and frustration, to empathise with the client, and also a punchy, straight-talking body copy to inform customers of what was going on – initially we even suggested the word ‘bollocks’, though the Department for Transport wouldn’t allow that. The core thought of ‘straight talking’ was implemented across all communications, putting the message first and design second. Messages included ‘I’m fed up with the crush hour!’ and   ‘The Pain’ and ‘The Gain’ – honest words to tell people how the programme will affect them and the long-term advantages.

Visually, the striking and bright multi-coloured stripes, combined with an up-front human tone of voice, created impact and recognition in cluttered urban environments.

From campaign launch in September to December 2008, commuter awareness levels of the improvement programme increased from 25% to 85%. By March 2009, they had reached 98%. Most importantly, customer feedback was positive despite the difficult messages. We delivered an attention-grabbing brand and easy-to-use messaging strategy that was rolled out across London and beyond.

A more creative, considered approach

London’s transport system faces many similar challenges. From Crossrail to the upgrade of London Bridge station, these are huge projects that are causing significant disruption. Through communication that deploys empathetic but positive messages in a visually striking way, it is possible to reduce passenger stress, aid traffic flow, and keep London moving.

Across the whole system there are many little improvements that can be made. For example, visual and audible announcements that encourage people to be considerate to others, move down carriages and stand clear of doors in a consistent, fun and friendly way could make the whole system run more effectively.

Our work on Thameslink showed that people adapt rapidly. They do understand the need for upgrades, and are, in many cases, genuinely proud of the transport network. By looking beyond logistics and engineering, and taking a more creative, considered approach to passenger communications, transport companies could significantly enhance not only their operations, but also their reputations. After all, the original tube map was an iconic piece of design that undoubtedly contributed to the success of the network. It is time for today’s transport providers to follow that example.

Jake Mason is CEO of Evolve, a brand agency and insights consultancy.

Jake Mason CEO Evolve
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