Humans Invent spoke to senior curator of the London Transport Museum, Claire Dobbin, about the history and evolution of this iconic map.
The tube map has certainly become part of popular visual culture and even a symbol of London itself
Harry Beck was the original designer of the tube map that laid the foundations for what we see in use today. Although there have been changes over the years since his 1933 design, on the bottom right-hand corner of all modern tube maps it says, “This diagram is an evolution of the original design, conceived by Harry Beck in 1931.”
It is precisely the fact the map is diagrammatic and not geographically based that makes it such an inspired design. Dobbin says, “The genius of Beck was that he realised that the exact geographical or topographical course of the line is not necessarily essential to the underground passenger. What is important is the direction you’re going in, how many stops and where to get off.”
Maps preceding this had been topographically and geographically based which meant they were generally cramped, messy and ultimately, hard to decipher. Dobbin says, “In the 1932 map by Fred Stingemore -the preceding map to Beck’s – the central area in particular is so cluttered that it is very hard to see the name of certain stations.”
Some argue that the diagrammatic approach is misleading by not being geographically accurate and while this maybe true if you were using the map to navigate overground it serves its intended purpose- as an aid to navigate through the underground system. Dobbin says, “A good map caters specifically for its usage, in the best possible way. When it was first introduced in 1933, Beck’s diagrammatic map embodied the very essence of modern functionalism that underpinned the Underground’s design philosophy.”
To keep the design neat Beck imposed a rule that the lines could only go horizontally, vertically or at a 45 degree angle (such as the Northern line once it is south of the river) though the changes in direction were formed by curves.
Since 1933 new underground lines have been created and because Beck’s design was so simple it has been easy to add to the map without causing too much clutter.
Beck was in control of the tube map design until 1960. Throughout these 30 years he carried on making small alterations such as swapping the symbol for interchange stations from a diamond to a circle and changing the colours of the different lines. From the 1960s onwards numerous designs were tried such as Harold Hutchinson’s that took out the curves found in Beck’s maps and used more cramped text lettering. This map proved unpopular and within a couple of years designers were returning to Beck’s maps for inspiration.
The tube map, with its neat, modernist design is visually very appealing but the reason for the map’s success is down to its practicality.
He realised that the exact geographical or topographical course of the line is not necessarily essential to the underground passenger
Dobbins says, “The London tube map is one of the most widely recognised maps in the world, it has inspired artists and cartographers, been the subject of academic debate and has been printed on more products than Beck could have thought imaginable. It has certainly become part of popular visual culture and even a symbol of London itself – but none of these things provide a more appropriate measure of the diagrammatic map’s success than the fact that it is still in use – fulfilling the function it set out to 80 years ago.”
Other cities across the world have been inspired by Beck’s design, most notably Sydney whose map, despite the overall course the lines take, looks almost identical to the London one. Interestingly, one place where Beck’s diagrammatic map was introduced without success was on the New York subway.
Dobbin says, “In New York, in 1972, there was a diagrammatic map that was very short lived, it wasn’t very popular. It was considered a design classic but the passengers didn’t necessarily find it that easy to use so they reverted back to a more geographical map.”
For anyone interested in learning more about transport maps, the Mind the Map exhibition (which has a collection of over 4,000 maps) runs until 28 October at the London Transport Museum.