Norman Wilson’s pioneering Manchester design practice brought striking modernist graphics to industrial Britain – including the once-ubiquitous NBC Corporate Identity
Just published…. issue 44 of The Modernist magazine includes an article by Richard Price on the career, influences and graphic design work of Norman Wilson. Wilson’s work for Croda International drew him to the attention of Sir Fred Wood who, on his appointment as NBC chair in 1971, appointed Wilson to develop a new corporate identity.
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. This article and the research behind it help to correct that.
It is Wilson’s NBC Corporate Identity Manual of 1972 and 1976, which formalised the identity he developed over the course of 1971-72, that this project has been launched to reissue.
Wilson’s work extended beyond the bus industry. The article looks at how his designs brought modernism to parts of industrial Britain – for the chemicals industry, the relaunch of famous northern restaurant chain UCP, and his work teaching and inspiring a new generation of commercial graphic designers. Much of his work demonstrates his skill for creatively combining colour, striking photography and innovative letterforms to produce a visually-striking design. Edward Pond, a friend and collaborator (and later the founder of the Paperchase chain) described Wilson as “a typographer in the true sense of the word”.
Local companies adapted the NBC corporate identity to service vehicles, producing some interesting (and occasionally wild) innovations.
Michael Hitchen, author of the leading book on the subject (see links at the end), presents a guest blog on the way NBC’s corporate identity guidelines were adapted (and widely ignored!) for local companies’ service vehicles.
Although the National Bus Company had existed since 1969 it would not be until 1972 that detailed Corporate identity instruction were issued. These included every facet of the organisation activities, including livery instruction on the Service Fleet, a mixed range of vehicles from vans, lorries, recovery vehicles, trainer vehicles and a range of miscellaneous types.
Reference to the appropriate page shows a medium size van as an example for the prescribed application. Unlike PSV vehicles where interpretation was relatively restricted, the Service Fleet was far more varied and the NBC allowed this one illustration to guide all other types of vehicle. This should have been straightforward as basically it was a variation on the Central Activities Group (CAG) coach livery, all-over white with red/blue NATIONAL lettering. Oddly, apart from the small legal lettering, there was no advice for the fleetname, which for CAG coaches initially had been a very small ‘company identifier’ underlined in the local company’s bus fleet colour, so if followed as per the manual, these vehicles would have been left anonymous across the NBC fleet.
While that was the official guidance, in practice each fleet choose its own interpretation. A few did follow guidelines to a certain extent: Trent was a good example of compliance, with white applied to most of its ancillary fleet apart from its tree-lopper, which received all over yellow.
Ribble followed for its Trainers and some Breakdown lorries. East Kent and Alder Valley also had white vans, though Alder Valley replaced NATIONAL with its fleet name, as did Oxford South Midland.
The rest of the fleet contained a huge variety, rule of thumb was the use of the fleets base colour, ie Grass Green or Poppy Red, though I have no evidence of NBC Blue being used on Service Vehicles.
Variation of this application depended on the company, Crosville choose unrelieved Green on its vans and lorries and a dual-purpose livery for its recovery vehicles including it impressive AEC Matador Heavy Recovery Vehicle. National Welsh treated its vans in dual-purpose red/white but used yellow for its Recovery and training vehicles. South Wales often used red or yellow but with no fleet name. With these vehicles, variation was the running theme across the corporate NBC! The livery of Training vehicles depended on the fleet, Western National, Maidstone, Hants & Dorset, Eastern Counties use all over yellow, with variations on lettering; Eastern National and latterly Bristol, had used all over dark blue, Crosville applied a broad white band between the decks, as did Lincolnshire.
Occasionally this lack of strict abidance would see the discreet way of continuing pre-corporate practices, initially Bristol applied Orange/Cream to much of its SV fleet, Southern Vectis applied underlined gold serif fleet names on its dual-purpose liveried van for a time and West Yorkshire perpetuated its use of non-standard green to the majority of it service fleet (apart from Trainers) throughout the 1970s!
It would not be possible to list the huge variety of interpretation that companies used, many changing within the corporate period! As time progressed particularly into the 1980s livery guidance changed as well, yellow became the standard livery for Heavy Recovery lorries, possibly because of legislation, vans could be seen carrying adverts to promote commercial activities, and vans could be seen in standard factory colours, possibly a cost saving measure, or just white as they where meant to be from the start!
Many thanks to Michael Hitchen for providing this guest blog, including the photographs from his own collection. Michael is an authority on NBC’s liveries, and his book on NBC’s service vehicles is available from Amberley Books here: National Bus Company Service Vehicles 1972-1986 – Amberley Publishing ; and also from Amazon in hard copy or Kindle format.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.