The 'Muni Worm'

Timeless or time for a change?

Our Creative Director, Steve Hickson recently visited San Francisco, the logo for the city’s public transit system caught his eye.


While I was in San Francisco, one piece of design that grabbed my attention was the Muni logo. The San Francisco Municipal Railway (or Muni) is the public transit system for the city and county of San Francisco and operates the city’s buses, light rail, cable cars and streetcars. The logo (known locally as the ‘Muni worm’) with its thick and thin line-work is a wonderful piece of 70’s design - I thought I’d do a bit of digging to find out more about this iconic logo.

The 1970’s was a period of change for the Muni - with construction of the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and the Muni Metro light-rail system well underway, a ‘Transit-First’ charter embedded into the City Charter and a drive to make the transport system accessible to all elderly and disabled people, a redesign of the system’s look was introduced in 1975. The logo was designed by world-famous brand designer Walter Landor - it debuted alongside a very 70's yellow and orange ‘sunset’ livery and was first applied to the city’s trolley buses and streetcars. Following the creation of the SF Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) in 1999, there were many discussions over whether to scrap the ‘Worm' and create something completely different. Ultimately, the Worm won and today, 40 years after it first appeared on a Muni trolley bus it's still going strong.

In 2014, local designer Derek Kim set out his vision for a new version of the famous logo, simplifying it and proposing a contemporary, more modern adaption of the famous identity. A writer from online news site 'SF Weekly' pointed out, ‘Kim sees chaos and he must instil order. He sees sloppiness and he needs to organize it. He sees haphazardness and he has to bestow regularity. He sees Muni — and he's gotta change everything.’

At the end of this is the link to Kim's work, reaction to this was mixed, Personally, I like the cleaned-up uniformity of this version even if it does lack the bell-bottomed swagger of the original. While the re-design was only an exercise, commentators bemoaned the loss of character and wondered why anyone would want to change a design classic, however, it’s impressive that a 40+ year old identity is still going strong. A truly timeless logo will be effective 10, 20 or even 50 years after its launched, could this piece of design be called timeless? It’s certainly ‘timeless’ as its lasted this long without any change, but from a design perspective is it now too backward-looking, too disorganised and old-fashioned (which is how many people in San Francisco describe their transport system) - is it in need of a refresh or a complete rethink? I don’t live in San Francisco so don’t hold affection for it like I do for London’s iconic (Underground) roundel so maybe I’m not in a position to comment, but what it does represent is getting from A to B in San Francisco (albeit around the houses), perhaps that’s enough for the good people of San Fran.

See Derek Kim’s Muni rebranding concept here: http://www.approvedsf.com/MUNI-Rebranding-Concept

Further links and additional reading:

  1. https://www.theverge.com/2014/1/10/5294550/san-francisco-muni-logo-redesign
  2. https://www.sfmta.com/blog/doing-worm-brief-history-munis-graphic-art
  3. https://archives.sfweekly.com/sanfrancisco/as-the-worm-turns-a-designers-concept-of-what-muni-could-be/Content?oid=2829123
  4. https://www.fastcodesign.com/3025277/what-san-franciscos-muni-system-would-look-like-with-a-facelift