Why the 1933 London Tube Map Is Still Considered Design Genius

While previous map designs had retained geographical fidelity, Beck understood that wasn’t particularly relevant to travelers, to whom lines, stops and connections mattered most, according to Kent. Instead, “his design ruthlessly imagined traveling by Underground, and the problem of planning journeys, from a user’s perspective to the extent that geography — usually crucial for a map — was discarded,” says Kent.

As a result, Beck’s map had a major impact. “The positive image Beck provided encouraged more people to use the Underground to get around the city because it presented the system as a rational, efficient and thoroughly modern means of transport,” Kent says. “However, the effect was also to change users’ mental maps of London, not just in making the city seem like a functioning metropolis, but actually affecting their geographical understanding of the city. Distance, direction and existence — i.e., whether a place is on the Tube map or not — all get distorted and continue to do so today.”

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Tube map

Harry Beck was an eminent 20th-century English technical draftsman who believed travelers were mainly interested in knowing how to get from one station to another and where to change trains.

London Transport Museum

While Beck’s design was revolutionary, he didn’t completely develop it in a vacuum.

“When appraising Beck’s design, it is crucially important to look at what came before. Hence, people often overestimate the novelty of Beck’s design and promulgate the myth that his map was a single stroke of innovative genius that was inherently different to anything that came before,” Kent says.

The truth is more nuanced. “Looking at the evolution of the design of the map, it is possible to see that Beck built upon the advances made by his predecessors,” Kent says. “For example, Max Gill removed the topographic detail from the map, freeing the depiction of the network from its geographical anchor. Fred Stingemore introduced the Johnston font and made the lines clearer to see as well as introducing more distortion. These predecessors paved the way for Beck’s introduction of a geometric form to the map — limiting angles to 45 and 90 degrees — which also resonated with the Art Deco style and its penchant for movement.”

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