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Norman Wilson: building an image

“Design, unlike art, is not a means of self expression, but an attempt to solve a pre-determined problem in visual terms”

Norman Wilson (1931-1991), leading Manchester graphic designer of the 1970s, was the brains behind NBC’s corporate identity. Wilson had worked with the incoming NBC chair, Freddie Wood, since the early 1960s, and was responsible for creating a strong visual image for Croda International, the chemicals company at which Wood had been CEO. Wood believed that a uniform brand would help NBC to compete in the express coach market and unify the bus businesses. In the summer of 1971, before Wood had even taken up his new role as chair of the NBC Board, he called on Wilson to develop ideas for a comprehensive new identity. Wood’s vision appealed to Wilson, who favoured simple, bold modern design, with careful use of colour, lettering and imagery to create a strong impression.

From the Corporate Identity Manual, Norman Wilson’s design for the National ‘white coach’, at the heart of his NBC identity, prominently featuring his NBC symbol and logotype.

In the reissued Manual, we’ll look at Wilson’s design thinking, influences and how he worked, drawing on discussions with some of the people who knew him best. Across an industry with strong local traditions, there was scepticism and even resistance. To explain the thinking behind the changes to NBC’s staff, Norman Wilson wrote a piece in a 1973 edition of NBC News.

With thanks to the Bus Archive, here is Wilson’s explanation of what a corporate identity is, and why it matters. Wilson’s article addresses his critics in the industry head-on, challenging them to think of how design helps to address the industry’s problems rather than reacting emotionally against something radically new.

Perhaps not surprisingly, his article has a slightly disparaging tone in places, reflecting his frustration with the industry’s traditionalists – including some at NBC Board level – who favoured much greater local autonomy on design, operational and commercial decisions. Having failed to prevent the adoption of the identity and more centralised planning of the national network, local company directors adopted delaying tactics instead in an attempt to win concessions to autonomy.

But by 1973, with a few minor compromises, the low-level battle between traditionalists and modernists on NBC’s image had swung decisively in Wood and Wilson’s favour.

Please get in touch is you have recollections of the introduction of the NBC corporate identity, or of working with Norman Wilson and his design team. As with most documents of the era the wording is not exactly gender-neutral, so please make allowances.

Building an image, by Norman Wilson FSIAD

The adoption of a corporate identity at NBC must be the biggest event since, the company was formed. Certainly no other event has caused more comment, more change, more misunderstanding. Many readers have asked so many fundamental questions that we thought we would ask Norman Wilson to write this short article. Mr Wilson is the Manchester designer retained by NBC, who was responsible for the national coach livery, and the design of the symbol.

Designer Norman Wilson in 1973 (Source: NBC/Bus Archive)

An individual’s personality is identified by his actions and appearance on first contact with another person, and images formed by his visual appearance. The clothes worn can, and usually do express his personality. One can distinguish the extrovert from the introvert, the trendy from the tramp, the conservative from the revolutionary.

Companies and service organisations have the same problem of identity as individual people. They act in a particular way, and their ‘dress’, ie, public visual appearance, should amplify their character, or intended character. This ‘dress’ will of course only enhance the actual image which exists in the public mind due to the actions of that company.

Superb icing will not make a stale cake edible, and the organisation with an efficient looking image, and inefficient actions will produce a bad effect. The medium size company originally, of course, did have the image of the managing director or chairman, who could control the design of the visual activities of the company. He had the time to be involved in the design of his vehicles, letterheads, packaging, signing, etc.

With the growth of the monolithic institution, the purchasing and design approval of items became fragmented. The stationery had the personality stamp of the accountant; livery expressed the transport chief’s ideas; advertising the trendy ad manager’s attitude. A state is reached eventually where the large company image is dissipated into the sum total of various ideas and expressions.

The need, therefore, arises to establish what the identity is or should be, and to establish how to convey it in terms which adequately reflect it through all visual activities. A cumulative effect is produced which is inter-related and consciously organised.

From a 1974 NBC brochure, showcasing the bold, modern image Wilson developed for local seervices, based on the symbol, his distinctive lettering, and uniform use of a tightly controlled colour palette. (Source: NBC/Richard Price Collection)

This is known as a corporate identity, and can be a complex problem which the size and rapid change of modern technology. The commercial artists of yesteryear, who was originally mainly concerned with illustrating an advertisement or poster, has now become more conversant with marketing, selling, accountancy methods, computers, product design, architecture and interiors, finding that he emerges no longer as an artist, but as a designer in the visual communications industry.

The basic problem to any identity is the brand name. This should be used in a consistent style and colour or colours, so that eventually it is recognisable at a glance, almost avoiding the necessity to read it. If it is desirable to connect differing named companies, a symbol may solve the problem coupled with the same style of lettering throughout; and again with related use of colour.

When these basic factors have been agreed, the next problem is implementing the design throughout the organisation and maintaining it. New stationery, signing, promotional literature etc, should look as though it is the result of an organised, efficient, and more economic design policy instead of many different decisions by various people who are often emotionally biased in design decision. They may not like particular colours or forms of lettering without considering whether it solves the problem in totality, rather than in the individual case.

The designer cannot afford to be emotional, or to have favourite colours if he is to be objective.  Design, unlike art, is not a means of self expression, but an attempt to solve a pre-determined problem in visual terms.

Try considering design, not in terms of whether you like it, but try first to define the problem and then ask yourself whether the design solution answers that problem.

From the Graphic Standards section of the Manual, Wilson’s NBC symbol and lettering, making up the logotype, originally designed in 1971.

Norman Wilson FSIAD

Norman has practised from Manchester with three assistant designers for over 10 years [by 1973]. Previously, he had 10 years’ experience in advertising agencies.

A fellow of the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers, he is also a visiting lecturer in visual communication at Manchester Polytechnic, college assessor for the SIAD, and on the Advisory Committee at Bolton College of Art.

His work has appeared in various design journals and has been exhibited in Europe and the USA. He is chairman of Furness Vale Community Association, and New Mills Old Prize Brass Band. He likes wine making but prefers drinking it.

Norman Wilson’s business card.
(Courtesy of Jean Horsfall)
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Applying the identity Bristol Design East Kent London Country Staff

National uniformity

As part of its comprehensive rebranding, NBC’s corporate identity extended to what its staff wore.

The NBC Corporate Identity Manual is best known for its uniform bus and coach liveries. But it was also intended to address standardisation of a wide range of other aspects of NBC’s presentation to its customers, including clothing and uniforms.

NBCs constituent companies had started experimenting with uniforms as part of their coach branding – in this example, East Kent adopted bright orange uniforms for coach hostesses with a cut and cap reflecting fashions of the era during the late 1960s. The driver on the other hand sports a contrasting very traditional uniform.

Section 7 of the NBC Corporate Identity Manual dealt with “uniforms and related items” such as cap and jacket badges.  But there is some mystery over section 7. We believe it was drafted – indeed NBC put a lot of work into uniform design – but may not have been issued: curiously the copies of the Manual we have seen omit it. We’ll be digging deeper into this over the coming months to make sure that a reissued corporate identity manual includes as much of the issued material as we can source. Please get in touch if you can help.

NBC’s constituent companies inevitably had a variety of styles, many unchanged  since the 1950s.  With a few exceptions – notably innovations in the coach market to reflect the speed and modernity of the emerging national motorway network – uniforms tended to be very traditional with heavy wear-resistant fabrics in black or dark blues, round peaked caps and occasionally traditional braid to indicate seniority.  Coach crews often sported light-coloured overalls and matching caps.  But – as with liveries – there tended to be substantial variation between local companies.

NBC’s corporate identity sought to do away with all that, and to introduce a standard look for crews and bus station staff. Crews and staff were to be the human face of the business, so their attire needed to reflect the modernity the business aimed to project. NBC and Norman Wilson’s team wanted staff to project the company’s modern image as much as the vehicles, and investigated overseas practice as well as drawing inspiration from constituent companies’ innovations in the coach market.

Bus crew uniforms saw a radical change. Adopting a much more modern look, Wilson and his team adopted a sleek modern-cut in a blue-grey serge, with a similar lightweight version for summer. The cut of the uniform for women was very similar, but with a simpler cap. In this NBC publicity shot, a crew poses next to an AEC Regent in the new corporate colours, with a driver in a contrasting traditional uniform.

Out went dark colours, and in came lighter blue-grey suits with a relatively modern cut, greater comfort and incorporating larger pockets to assist with carrying paperwork. Out went the traditional round peaked caps and in came a modern, Germanic-looking octagonal cap in the same shade of blue-grey, sporting a smart metal ‘double-N’ arrow badge.

Two London Country staff pose for a publicity shoot in 1972. The uniform for men incorporated a radically different octagonal cap design, almost unseen in Britain but more common in northern mainland Europe. For women, a cleaner-cut pillbox hat was adopted.

Office and counter staff at bus stations counted among them many more women than the drivers and crews. Various uniforms were created for women over the years, typically in brighter hues of the corporate colours, with styles evolving with fashion more than the men’s uniforms.

A Bristol Omnibus Company driver wears his octagonal crew cap, during a driving demonstration for the NBC training film ‘They don’t grow on trees’, made in 1979.
The women’s coach uniform came used various combinations of the corporate colours – here is an early variant in corporate blue and lined in red.

Whereas the changes in bus liveries are well documented, pictures of the changing uniforms through the NBC period are relatively few and far between. If you have any photos you’d be happy for us to use to illustrate the evolving staff attire for bus and coach crews and for bus station staff, do let us know. We’ll add any photos and stories in the coming weeks.

NBC’s corporate identity picked up on the best of its constituents’ designs – shown here, an early coach hostess uniform, similar to the East Kent National Travel version above, but in the NBC colours.

While the men’s uniform changed relatively little until the 1980s, women’s uniforms were more regularly updated as styles changed. This version shows a variant of the bus station staff uniform from the early 1980s.
Coach staff saw more change during the NBC period than their bus counterparts. Here we see the male and female uniforms adopted in the early 1980s for National Express drivers and crew.

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Design Developing the Manual Norman Wilson

Norman Wilson Associates

Can you help us to tell the story of Norman Wilson and the NBC Corporate Identity?

In 1972, Sir Fred Wood was appointed chair of the National Bus Company, with a mandate to take a more commercial approach to the corporation’s management, with a business-oriented focus on halting the decline in NBC’s market share and financial performance in both coach and bus markets. Wood had been impressed by his experience of Greyhound Coaches during his time in the US, with its consistent ‘pan-continental’ branding. As part of his new approach to turning around NBC’s fortunes, he called for a root-and-branch rebranding of coach and bus operations.

Before even taking up his role as NBC Chair, late in 1971 Fred Wood approached Manchester-based designer Norman Wilson – who had worked with him at his family business, Croda – to develop a new corporate identity. It is Wilson’s NBC Corporate Identity Manual, which formalised the identity he developed over the course of 1971-72, that this project has been launched to reissue.

Norman Wilson, designer of the NBC Corporate Identity, applies his NATIONAL lettering to the very first ‘white coach’ at Eastern Coach Works (ECW), Lowestoft, April 1972. His ‘double-N’ arrow seems to be pointing in the wrong direction in this trial application of the new identity to Eastern Counties’ RE858: normally it would point in the direction of travel on either side of the vehicle. Behind Wilson, assisting with the application, is ECW’s Alan ‘Casey’ Crisp, described by Eastern Counties’ Stephen Milne as “the best coach painter I ever knew – the best at lining-out and an excellent sign-writer.” Casey spent his entire working life at ECW, retiring at 65, three years before the Coachworks closed in 1987.

But unlike the development of British Rail’s corporate identity, remarkably little is documented on Wilson, his business Norman Wilson Associates, their influences or the creative process.

Can you help us to fill the gap? Were you involved, or did you work with Norman Wilson, or know of Norman Wilson Associates’ work for NBC or elsewhere? If so, please do get in touch with us using our contact form.

Help us to tell the full story of the NBC Corporate Identity.