Design directing the public

Welcome to the sixth edition of Theoretical Thursdays this summer. For the previous article click here. This week takes a look at the evolution of the design of the London Underground map. 


Harry Beck created a new map of the London Underground “tube” station in 1933. He was honored posthumously on the 80th anniversary of the map with a English Heritage Blue Plaque. However, the debt society owes to Beck stems beyond a mere plaque.

Beck’s background as an engineering draftsman likely prepared him, and maybe even propelled his interest, in mapmaking. As more train lines were added to the city the map describing the routes grew progressively more convoluted. More stops meant there was more information required on the map. In time the names were printed so small to fit that they became hardly more legible than the Ray Gun cover from the earlier Tate Modern article.

Beck combated this complexity by standardizing the routes. Curved lines straightened into 45 degree angles. Colored lines mark the routes and stops of the “Tube” without using confusing symbols.  He also removed the above ground street map to eliminate distractions for quick reading between trains. Beck distorted the map to allow for even spacing between stops so that people could clearly read the posted names. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he further distorted the map to give ample space to the congested central London portion of the map allowing for greater visibility to the higher trafficked areas. These design decisions have made Beck’s map a benchmark not only in transit mapping but also for infographics in general.01.1364558642

I am drawn to the simplicity of the form. Beck has demonstrated a deep grasp of design principles to condense so many layers of information into a concise map. As my first forays into graphic design were in editorial layout and infographic illustration this piece has special significance to me. His sharp attention to craft made for easier for the full color reproductions to be made for the public. This step was crucial as the dot gain of the day for a four plate printing process would have made ink bleeding not only common but a problem for the small type.

For more on Harry Beck click here.



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