Harry Beck’s iconic map of the London Underground (the Tube) is now seventy-five years old, which is surprising because it is as fresh today as it was when the first edition was printed in 1933. The London Underground map is one of those rare designs: functional, beautiful and difficult to improve.
Beck’s map came at a time when Frank Pick, the manager of the newly-formed London Transport Passenger Board, was unifying the different parts of the Underground system through design. Pick had previously employed typographer Edward Johnston to design a typeface for the signs used in the Underground. However, Pick did not commission Beck to produce a new Underground map; Beck developed his map in his spare time. When Beck presented his map to the LTPB in 1933, they promptly rejected it as too revolutionary. The 29-year-old Beck was not discouraged and resubmitted his map to the LPTB who agreed to a trial run of only five hundred copies of the first edition, such was the LPTB’s belief that passengers would not like Beck’s newfangled map. The first edition, like every edition since, was a hit.
Beck’s was not the first London Underground map, but it was the first to break the convention of placing stations with geographical accuracy. What Beck realised—and what with hindsight seems obvious—was that geography is meaningless under ground. Beck favoured station order and interchanges over geography as the organising principle. Beck’s map deliberately distorts and enlarges the central region of the map, which is the most used region, and contracts the outer regions, just like the view produced by a fisheye lens. As such, Beck’s map is not really a map at all; it is a diagram. Beck was an engineering draughtsman, not a graphic designer, and the inspiration Beck drew from electrical circuit design shines through: wires become underground lines and solder points become interchanges.
Beck worked on his map for a further twenty-six years, not only updating it with new lines and stations, but perfecting it. Beck’s map continues to evolve without him, just as the Underground system it represents evolves, and is now amended by designers using software running on computers not dreamt of when Beck drew his first draft in 1931.
The maps of most of the world’s underground systems now use the design language Beck introduced but none are as beautiful. Beck’s map is the user interface for the London Underground, and for those who know the city only through its Underground stations, Beck’s map is also the user interface for London.