The Secret Psychology Of The Tube's Colours

By Momtaz Begum-Hossain Last edited 11 months ago

Last Updated 17 May 2023

The Secret Psychology Of The Tube's Colours
A DLR platform in the snow - a woman in brightly coloured clothes pulls a pose in front of a bright red train
The author at Beckton Park with one of the current DLR trains

Does anything depict the capital's colourful side more than the tube map?

A chromatic labyrinth of lines representing every hue of the rainbow — there's no escaping a serious dose of colour on a commute. Distinct hues penetrates every journey — from the colour of the line itself, to the station décor. This impacts our senses while we travel, and affects our mood. So, if you're feeling particularly positive, or your day seems to be going downhill — it could be due to how you travelled from A-B.

Intrigued? Let's begin with red — the most iconic of London's shades…

London's 'true colour'

A tube train photographed through a platform entrance - in gleaming red tiles
Image © Tube Mapper

Red is 'London's true colour' insists Peter Ackroyd, author of Colours of London, a book that dives deep into what the colours of the capital mean. It's a fair observation; you don't need to be on the Central line to encounter rouge — you'll find it on bus stops, roundels, tube logos... but why is this the case?

Jon Hunter, Head of Design at TfL, tells me: "Red is a colour we see all over London in the old phone boxes, postboxes, Beefeaters – it's one of the colours of the United Kingdom so using red for the roundel was a natural choice."

A vintage Routemaster bus on the road
Image: Chris Sampson via creative commons

An extrovert by nature, the bold energy of red makes it ooze confidence and power, something Ackroyd acknowledges in his book: "The Central line is coloured red to signify its route through the most powerful centres of London, from Oxford Street, to St Paul’s and Bank." I would argue that the two Westfields can be added to that list; both are on the Central line, both wear a blazing red logo.

Tube line colours can change over time; the Central line was originally blue. In its relatively short existence, the DLR has also transformed from a rich blue, to teal. The trains themselves — currently bright red and blue — are will turn teal soon too. How does a change like that impact us? London lover and photographer Luke Agbaimoni, aka TubeMapper, welcomes the change: "I'm a big fan of the colours on the current DLR trains," he tells me, "however, I do quite like the bright bluish turquoise on the new trains.

"I think they'll add a pleasant visual variety when they run alongside the older red trains."

Is the future orange?

An orange, blue and white Overground train
Image: Londonist/Matt Brown

The warming, energising properties of red are shared by orange — considered to be the most creative of colours. If you've lost your creative mojo, a trip on the London Overground could get you back on track. But rather than being orange, could the future of this line be oranges? The former East London Line is soon to be re-branded again, with new station names and possibly different branches, identified by various tones of orange. Again, I wonder what will this mean for Londoners? Bright sunset orange radiates positive energy, putting you in a good mood; darker burnt oranges can feel melancholic as they're the last burst of colour nature gives us in autumn before everything turns brown; while a softer peach has friendly highlights, so could encourage conversations between strangers. It's going to be interesting to see which lines end up what colours.

One thing is certain with the Overground's overhaul: new names and colours will reduce anxiety around travelling on the network. Jon Hunter explains: "The Overground has become a bit of an orange spaghetti. It can be become difficult to understand, particularly when there are planned closures. The aim is to make it simpler to navigate."

A person walks down an orange tiled passageway
A splash of orange at Bond Street. Image © Tube Mapper

As orange promotes creativity, if you want to get your juices flowing, Luke Agbaimoni recommends taking a trip to one of the lesser-visited aesthetically-pleasing stations: "One of the quirkiest colours of a station can be found at Hatton Cross. A mixture of orange and green, it's such a bold and interesting combination, a very enjoyable surprise."

In fact, colour psychology is at play in every element of your journey: "People don't really like to travel underground," says Jon Hunter, "It isn't a natural human condition, so the easier and more familiar we can make it feel, the better. We do that through colour and light." In general, this means darker floors, mid-coloured walls and lighter ceilings — to make spaces feel larger, as well as to make passengers forget they're underground at all. That's especially important at over-crowded stations.

TfL really gets into the detail with these clever colour tricks. Says Jon: "Colour is used intuitively to help passengers navigate interchanges. You'll also see it in the black and red tile changes between the Northern and Central at Tottenham Court Road."

"We make sure the colours don't give you a headache"

Grey and green tram moquette
Image: Londonist

Yellow is the colour of positivity and excitement; if you're waiting for a Circle line train, and there are three consecutive District line tubes scheduled on the departure board, the positive nature of yellow should still keep you in good spirits (or at least better spirits than if you were waiting for a Northern line train).

Of all the tube's line colours, the District line's green makes the most sense. Embodying the colour of nature, the route is topped and tailed by leafy suburbs, while leading you through the capital’s most picturesque open spaces (Kew, Turnham Green, Richmond, Wimbledon, St James's and Victoria parks). Despite it having the most number of stops and feeling like a ride takes forever, any anxiety is alleviated by green's calming properties. There's even an unofficial green tube map highlighting the cities parks and recreation grounds.

A bucolic cottage in a garden setting
Leafy Kew is fittingly on the green District line. Image: Matt Brown/Londonist

Nature works its way into moquette seating on tubes too — as Jon reveals: "The colours of the Elizabeth line moquette pick up the colours of the landscape the route travels through, from urban Reading to the suburbs of Abbey Wood. We've included colours you might see out of the window. The same can be said for the greens and greys of the tram moquette, mirroring the mixture of the urban and rural that flashes past the tram windows.

Adds Jon: "Moquette colours also need to appeal from every angle. Sometimes you have no choice but to stare at what's directly in front of you, so we make sure the colours don't give you a headache."

A case of the blues (and purples)

A row of ticket machines
Image: Paige Kahn/Londonist

With its nod to the open skies, the light blue of the Victoria line allows your thoughts to flow freely, while the royal blue of the Piccadilly line diminishes feelings of being blocked. If you need to clear your head, or are seeking clarity on an issue, board the first train towards Walthamstow Central then swap to the Piccadilly when you get to Finsbury Park — you'll feel the benefits of both blues.

A cousin of blue, purple is a relatively new addition to the tube map. The Metropolitan line has purple undertones, but it wasn't until the Elizabeth line emerged with its Pantone 266c that the colour brought a soothing spirit to the commute. Purple promotes healing, so if you're looking for a journey that's off the beaten track and elevates you higher, pop your headphones in and zone out to an audio meditation aboard the Liz line. Purple, of course, is also a royal colour, although it's not the only regal shade. The Jubilee line was originally grey but got upgraded to silver to commemorate the late queen's Silver Jubilee.

Paint it black

A tube train pulls up at a tube platform with a Bank roundel
Image: Matt Brown/Londonist

The Northern line's prominent black colour suggests a route that is formal and reliable — but also dark and dirty. Travelling on it can make us feel glum, putting us in the worst mood of all the lines. It was after all, once nicknamed the 'Misery line'.

The Bakerloo line perhaps has a similar effect — although, of course, the stock of the train itself plays an important part in how we feel on our travels. Says Luke: "The brown Bakerloo line for example has old 1972 stock trains which make you feel like you're stepping into a moving museum, so that makes me feel excited."

Counter-balance the drabness of the Northern with the nurturing pink rays of the Hammersmith & City line. Being in the presence of pink is like receiving a hug — so don’t be surprised if your dopamine levels increase to being 'in the pink' when you board a H&C tube.

Running out of colours

A rainbow Pride roundel with 'Ours' written on it
Exciting roundels are another way TfL has inspired and uplifted passengers through colour. Image: TfL

One of the problems TfL faces now is that it's pretty much out of colours — for the tube map, at least. The only option is to use patterns and multi-coloured palettes. In the meantime, it continues to inspired and uplift passengers through colour with projects such as its Pride roundels — which bring an extra dose of rainbow harmony to the tube each year. Another annual gesture is allowing the Borough of Culture to personalise their stations (at West and East Croydon station right now, there are special BoC signs). When Larry Achiampong transformed Westminster's roundels with Pan-African colours it brought so much joy to travellers, TfL kept one.

But whatever its experimentation with roundels, TfL will always keep its trusty trademark red... won't it? In fact, Jon has some alarming news: "There've been some complications maintaining the red. The enamel on our signs changed around 2010, the pigments used to mix make the red no longer have blue tones but have become more orange, and as availability and ingredients of colours change, it could impact the colours we can use."

The iconic roundel without red? Let's hope that train never leaves the station.