Beck's London Underground Map
Designing something that adds a little more clarity or a few more features to a design that has gone before - incremental design, is one way of approaching a design task.  This approach is often more readily accepted and is generally much 'safer' in that less risk of failure is involved.  Producing a design that involves a totally different and fresh approach clearly has the likelihood of much greater opposition ~ this certainly proved the case when Harry Beck chose to submit a new idea for a 'simpler' map of the London Underground system in 1931.  In projects of your own you quite deliberately research some of the designs that have gone before and by doing that it is often easier to judge what has been successful and what clearly needs changing.
The Need

The London Underground Map is exactly what you would most want it to be.  It is a map simply showing how the different Underground rail-lines link up with other underground-lines.  If you have ever been to London you will appreciate how comforting it can be to be to plan a journey using a simple map and then to actually find the map helps you to achieve that.  Providing you are on the right 'coloured' line and are heading in the right (there are after all only two) direction on any given line, seeing the expected names of the stations appear as the train enters the station calms you into feeling a part of the city - without needing to know of the complexities of the street and buildings above.  The use we have for the map now is much the same as when it was created except that Beck's design included only 8 lines whereas now there are 14 ~ clearly we have a more complicated network to navigate than in the 1930's.  It is of course much the same in many other large and sprawling cities with their own 'underground systems' but this map was the first to take a sideways step at the task of laying out a simple map  unrelated to the topography that lay above it - a step that has been copied by rail-lines, airlines  and shipping lines across the world.  A visit to any of the websites belonging to the major airlines may reveal maps with a very similar structure to that of the underground network.  ( BAA and KLM )

As the tube system grew during the early 1900's maps showed the layout as it related to communities and streets that lay above it.  This would be a perfectly predictable and acceptable 'design answer' in the early days of the system since the early users would need to relate the comparatively new system to the streets and areas they already knew.  These early maps were not Beck's and as the tube layout became more complex he realised that a major simplification was necessary.  The use of lines drawn only in multiples of 45 degree angles allowed him to begin his simplification.
His task covered more than 30 years of development and in a time when cartographic changes were not achieved by 'dragging and dropping' or simply 'clicking a button' on the computer, this represented an astonishing degree of dedication. His early maps and lettering were all drawn by hand.

Harry Beck was an electrical draughtsman and produced drawings of electrical circuits; circuits used in the running of the Underground itself but his training had given him knowledge of the symbols and techniques used to depict wiring, diodes, resistors, junctions and valves.  He obviously knew of the colour coding used on resistors and capacitors and had the  considerable draughting skills to produce concise drawings ~ this was after all his job with London Underground, and as he lived and worked in London he had experience of the tube system itself.  Familiarity with a design 'need' is usually a tremendous help when it comes to finding solutions to a problem and Beck's home in the north London suburb of Finchley was far enough away from the city that he would have frequently used the underground-rail system.


The design of a new vacuum cleaner or a new mobile phone involves two distinct requirements.  There is a need for the item to function well and as more products become available on the market, there is a greater need for the item to appeal aesthetically to the users. The London Underground Map achieved a level of functionality in compressing a large amount of information into a simple and useable presentation. The central are of the map contained a larger number of stations and interconnections than the peripheral parts of the system.  As far as the 'user' was concerned there should be no need to relate the distance between two points on the map if the main intention was simply to facilitate the traveller getting there.  Having accepted this 'limitation' the task of presenting the complex interconnections within the system became easier ... more space could be allocated to that zone with far more information contained within it.  His map has the clarity and appearance of a wiring diagram.

Form / Aesthetics

Beck's use of a small number of symbols limited the need for a complex 'key' to the map, allowing the second requirement ~ that of aesthetic appeal  to be achieved too.  Frequently too little concern is given to the inter-relation of Form and Function ~ The simple and effective presentation of factual information in a clean and stylish manner. 

Beck first submitted his idea to Frank Pick of London Underground in 1931 but it was considered too radical as it did not show distances relative from any one station to the others.  During 1933 the map was given its first publication (700,000 copies) and the reaction of the travelling customers proved it to be sound design; it immediately required a large reprint after only one month.  Beck was paid the equivalent of £5.25 ~ (say around $10) for his "Design Classic"!  It should be said that Beck continued working on the map as the system changed, until his death in 1964 and this work has continued ~ more recently by Tim Demuth (and early on with Paul Garbutt - 1964), of London Transport's Publicity Department.  The 'simple colored lines on white' are now used on so many other products the map is symbolic of London's tourist industry itself.

First edition of Harry Beck's Underground map, 1933 
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