Harry Beck: The Paris Connection

Detail from Harry Beck’s 1951 Paris Metro map design (which was rejected by the city’s transport authorities). Used by kind permission London Transport Museum
The Royal Mail recently commem­orated one of the UK’s greatest works of visual infor­mation design when Harry Beck’s London Underground diagram was included for the first time on a British postage stamp writes Mark Ovenden. The impor­tance of Beck’s rectilinear, topologic 1933 diagram is widely recognised and praised by graphic designers. Many wonder why Beck never extended his ideas outside London. The answer is, he did – to the nearest major subway network to London: Paris.

Detail from Harry Beck’s 1951 Paris Metro map design (which was rejected by the city’s transport authorities). Used by kind permission London Transport Museum

The Royal Mail recently commem­orated one of the UK’s greatest works of visual infor­mation design when Harry Beck’s London Underground diagram was included for the first time on a British postage stamp writes Mark Ovenden. The impor­tance of Beck’s rectilinear, topologic 1933 diagram is widely recognised and praised by graphic designers. Many wonder why Beck never extended his ideas outside London. The answer is, he did – to the nearest major subway network to London: Paris.

In 1951 Beck submitted this revised edition of a map he had worked on for the Paris Metro in the late 1930s. But his map for the French capital was rejected and a diagrammatic approach to the city’s system wasn’t employed until 1999. Used by kind permission London Transport Museum

Despite his deserved fame, recent research shows Beck was not the first person to iron out meanders in a waving rail line or colour lines in a system: he could have been inspired by other diagrammatic transport maps, by LNER draughts­man George Dow; indi­vidual line maps inside Underground trains; and possibly a geometric representation of the Berlin S-Bahn, believed to pre-date Beck’s by two years.

Map collector Peter B Lloyd says Beck built on what went before: “going back to the Underground Group’s first modern-looking maps of 1908”. Beck’s earliest sketches for the diagram published by London Transport in 1933 were first prepared during 1931 – the same date the Berlin S-Bahn plan was printed.

Was this 1931 Berlin S-Bahn diagram (detail shown) an influence on Beck’s iconic 1933 London tube map design? © BVG

Though it’s not possible to know whether Beck saw this, it is unlikely he was aware of it – a case of great minds think alike? Dow’s diagrams were, however, on public view from 1929.

London tube map enthusiast Professor Maxwell Roberts draws on his impres­sive collection of pre-Beck railway diagrams, many emanating from the prolific Southern Railway’s timetables, and some dating to the 1890s when mainline railways across Europe were struggling to show their perplexing array of routes as directly as possible.

Gotthard Winter Season plan, 1897

The Gotthard Winter Season plan of 1897, for example, has only straight lines between the big cities. And as Lloyd suggests: making a successful diagram is not simply a matter of straightening out lines: “The concept of a closed system, as opposed to a map of all railway lines… the use of colour coding; abstracting the Underground from back­ground topographical features; compression of outlying lines; the use of special symbols for inter­changes – key elements of the visual language… were all invented [before Beck].”

Despite these facts, Beck’s contribution was impressive; the name of this electrical draughtsman has become an international byword for public transport schematics. His principles of neat 45 degree angles, elimination of topography and equalised station spacing have been emulated (as my book, Metro Maps of the World, showed) by urban rail map-makers from Atlanta to Zurich. But not, in the end, by Paris.

Image: Joe Clark/fawny.org

Like London before Beck, the Paris Metro network had almost exclusively been represented geographically: maps outside stations were (and continue to be) highly detailed topographic plans of the entire city, showing virtually every road, park and waterway with the Metro lines superimposed in all their winding glory.

Some rather excessive geometry on this Kandinsky-esque Paris Metro pocket map, issued by a private publisher in 1939. © All rights reserved

Though a few examples of privately drawn diagrams have emerged (one Kandinsky-esque rhapsody in abstraction from 1939, so utterly bizarre and impractical that it was never repeated) schematics were not adopted by the city until the last years of the 20th century.

According to Ken Garland’s history, Mr Beck’s Underground Map, the Metro operator approached Beck to design a diagram. Garland supposes the work was begun in the late 1930s but not finished until after the War. Little survives of his first attempt except a lone copy in Garland’s collection.

Beck’s first diagram of the Paris Metro. Ken Garland believes that Beck worked on this in the late 1930s, submitting the plan just after the end of WWII (only to see it rejected). Printed by kind permission Ken Garland/Capital Transport

The Paris Metro is not as easy to simplify as the London Underground. Firstly the lines interweave with each other more (Ligne 7 being the snakiest of these customers); this gives rise to more interchanges (by 1933 around 40 in London, 50 in Paris). Also the system was then mostly hemmed-in by the old Paris walls (a distance equivalent east-west to the width between South Kensington and Canary Wharf and north-south between Camden and Brixton).

With 200-plus stations in easy reach, this is great for passengers, but more challenging for map-makers. One of Beck’s greatest innova­tions was to massively expand inner London and condense the outer suburbs. This was just not needed in Paris (at that time) because the entire system was already in the ‘centre’ and very few stations in the suburbs.

Beck’s 1933 diagram. © TfL/London Transport Museum

What Beck therefore tried for Paris was in some ways more radical than what he’d achieved for London. He sought, in the mass of interlinked lines, some key visual axes to give his diagram order. Seizing the east-west running Ligne 1, Beck made it his prime axis (not as in London’s Central Line, running horizontally, but at that neat angle of 45 degrees). He exploited something unnoticed by previous cartographers: that Lines 2 and 6 form a rudimentary circle. Beck transformed them into a rectangle with rounded edges.

From these roots he plotted the other lines as straight as possible with impressive results: the curvaceous Ligne 10 becomes a flat line with its odd one-way loop stylised at extreme left. Kinky Ligne 14 is straightened to a single stroke. Ligne 3 – often seen on other maps with up to 11 direction changes – is reduced to just one nicely rounded alteration.

The overall appearance is clear, balanced and arguably easier to follow. But the key question was: would the French like it? The answer when Beck presented his first version was a resounding “Non!” Beck was not deterred. Indeed, his first London diagram was also rejected but he persisted and eventually its adoption, adoration and appositeness for the Underground was widely applauded. The same fate was not to befall Paris.

Beck went back to his drawing board and produced a second version. It’s not known if this was commissioned but, luckily for us, it survives in full colour and was recently revealed as one of the attractions at the refurbished London Transport Museum. It was published for the first time in a book when Paris Metro Style: In Map and Station Design came out in November 2008.

Details from Beck’s second attempt at the Paris Metro map. Used by kind permission London Transport Museum

Like any inspired genius, Beck did not waver from his initial concept: here again were his two original axes but Ligne 4 is simplified in its northern half. There are 15 physical direction changes in Ligne 7; Beck whittled these down to two. Ligne 8’s 14 real bends went to two, Ligne 11’s eight turns cut to none and Beck also, with great wit, added the River Seine.

So why did the Paris Metro (now operated by the RATP) reject Beck’s clear simplification of their beloved system? One reason is visible at each station entrance; Parisians use the maps here as a free public service to help them find their way round the city – the ubiquitous geographic wall map is more than just a Metro plan.

Detail from the Turgot map of Paris, 1739

The French adore pure cartography – laying claim to many mapping firsts, not least of which was Cassinni’s magnificent Carte géométrique de la France – a topographic map of the entire country (begun in the 1670s, though not finished until a century later). The painstakingly precise 1739 Turgot map of Paris (a kind of 3D view from the air, purported to show every visible window) is legendary.

Aside from cartographic history though, Roberts argues there was a fundamental problem with Beck’s Ligne 1 axis: “Paris is on a slant. Line 1 especially… is at roughly 25 degrees to horizontal. For a traditional diagrammatic map, which angle should it be snapped to – horizontal or 45 degrees? Whatever angle [is chosen, results in] at least one of the following problems: (1) uneven use of space as lines are compressed together or stretched apart more than in reality; (2) lots of kinks for trajectory correction to avoid (1); or (3) lots of geographical distortion.”

Roberts suggests Beck’s omissions on both versions (Gare de Lyon missing and Montparnasse drawn wrong on the first, and both Edgar Quinet and Vavin stations missing on the 1951 version), led to suspicion that the concept was untrustworthy. In his fascinating critique of Beck’s work (at tubemapcentral.com) Roberts postulates powerfully that though Beck’s diagram has aesthetic qualities, it distorted well-known Parisian geography too much for comfort.

Also diminishing a diagram’s benefits are the closeness of the stations to each other; one can be plonked down blindfolded in virtually any Paris quarter, walk 500m in any direction and theoreti­cally bump into a Metro entrance. Although in practice there are several holes in the system, such station spacing is much denser than in any other city in the world; a feat the French are justifiably proud of. But pride may be the true reason for the operators’ disinclination towards Beck’s or anyone else’s diagrams.

Beck’s influence travels round the world to form the basis for a plan of Sydney’s mainline rail system, as shown in a 1939 card map (note the adoption of the famous London Underground roundel). Used by kind permission London Transport Museum

By mid-century, Beck’s London diagram was ubiquitous and it was beginning to catch on: Sydney’s rail network was depicted in Beck style from 1939 (when a pocket map was issued on an identical sized folded card even aping the lu roundel on the cover). New York had its first Beck-esque diagram by 1958, Moscow and Osaka: 1970, St Petersburg: 1971, Munich and Tokyo: 1972, Melbourne, Montreal and Glasgow: 1976.

A 1936 version of the ‘Lagoute’ pocket map of the Paris Metro with coloured lines, little topography and some straightening. © RATP

In staunchly proud Paris, despite the multi-coloured spaghetti with which most contemporary maps portrayed the Metro, there was opposi­tion to following Britain. Double-decker buses for instance were tried out in the 1960s but thought unsuitable for Paris streets partially because they looked too British. In addition, a 1934 pocket Metro map by F Lagoute introduced a style that lasted almost 40 years: though it fell short of standardising angles, its clarity and geographical reflection of the city was sufficient for Parisians not to complain.

Such dedication to home-grown products is highly commendable but, ultimately, the over-whelming practicality of the diagram has won out. During the 1980s the ratp experimented with pocket maps, progressively straightening lines, equalising station spacing and permitting a degree of abstraction.

The current Paris Metro pocket diagram. © RATP

Mindful of Paris’s prominent position as the most visited city on the planet, the forward-thinking head of ratp’s design department, Yo Kaminagai, ordered his map designers to begin a quiet cartographic revolution from 1987 which finally resulted in the commis­sioning of a diagram. The 2000 design from agency bdc Conseil adheres so rigidly to Beck’s rules that he would surely have been honoured by it, and though there are now almost twice as many lines (including five rer lines) the current pocket map has become as accepted a part of French life as a Beck-esque diagram is for virtually every other city.

The Paris region’s rail services as a single diagram. © RATP

There was just one idiosyncracy: the geographic maps were retained as large wall posters at station entrances and on platforms. Yet even this hegemony for true geography was finally toppled in 2008 by the introduction of a map for the Île-de-France region’s rail services, becoming the first truly diagrammatic station wall poster. With 45 degree angles and distortion of some gaps and distances, one cannot help imagining that Beck, who died in 1974, would have cracked a wry smile.

Mark Ovenden is a writer with a particular interest in the graphic design, cartography and architecture of public transport systems. His website is at markovenden.com. This article appears in the March issue of Creative Review.

Further reading:
Paris Metro Style: In Map and Station Design (£29.95) and Metro Maps of the World (£25) by Mark Ovenden; Mr Beck’s Underground Map (£12.95) by Ken Garland; Underground Maps After Beck (£18.95) by Professor Maxwell Roberts. All published by Capital Transport and available from capitaltransport.com

  • Love it! nice article!

  • John Bennetts

    Since studying graphic design in the late 1950’s I’ve admired Beck’s work, and have incorporated the principles in my work on a long-standing project of my own which is intended to produce a new form of diagram for therapeutic use. I didn’t know about the Metro map, though. Thanks for an interesting and informative article.

  • I’m amazed that I enjoyed an article on maps!

  • A wonderful discovery; thanks. When I’m doing an illustrated map for a magazine client I try to move away from the actual immediately, and aim for the proximities instead. It makes room for picture and commentary. Diagrams aren’t meant to be photographs. I think this approach works best with city maps. I like topographical maps to have the texture of the actual place, which is why I find modern Ordnance Survey Maps off-putting. They resemble cell diagrams. They don’t advertise the country they depict. The 1940s series had the richer feel of a real place.

  • a fond reader

    He exploited something unnoticed by previous cartographers: that Lines 2 and 6 form a rudimentary circle.

    I think the Kadinski-esque map of 1936 included the “circle” of those lines. Non?

  • Patrick Burgoyne

    @ A fond reader
    The Kandinsky-esque map was published in 1939. It is believed that Beck was working on his Paris map before that – the piece states that Ken Garland thinks Beck was working on it in the ‘late 30s’ but was interrupted by WWII

    Patrick, CR

  • The image of the Métropolitain isn’t actually mine; it’s a Creative Commons–licensed photo I used on my blog.

  • This is one of the best blog posts I’ve ever read. Very interesting, thank you! Now I know who to thank for never feeling lost when I look at the London Tube map. Also, I still find even the current Paris map dissettling.

  • I hate the London map, it’s one reason I end up walking more than riding the tube. It makes no sense.
    Whereas I’m constantly using the Paris metro map to not only find which metro, RER, bus to use but also where I am in the city.
    I’m glad the Paris metro did not accept his map. It may be visually stunning, but it is not usable.

    Also, you cannot count on colors to define the lines. I’ve come across many Londoners that are lost in the Paris metro because there are several blue/green/purple lines on the faded maps that are not recognizable. The number/destination works much better.

    That said, London is a hell of a lot better than other cities, such as San Diego.

  • Andrew T

    This is a fantastic exploration of contrasting designs and how usability can trump tradition. I’m particularly struck by the “supergraphic”-ness of it (see E. Tufte).

  • Much like Beck himself, you’ve done a fantastic job of simplifying and making reader-friendly an intricate history. Wonderful article.

  • Paul

    I really enjoyed reading this article !

    Perhaps one more difference between Paris and London : London lines are dug quite deep (30 metres or so) and go under the buildings. Whereas in Paris they are very close to the surface (sometimes 3 or 4 metres) and mostly follow the streets !

    Therefore is it more relevant to mix the street map with the metro network in Paris than in London.

    – Provided most users are used to the Haussmannian structure of the street map, they can easily memorise which way the metro lines go. (for example, line 1 follows the Champs-Elysées and the Rivoli street, line 4 the Rennes street and Sebastopol bld)
    – It also gives a visual explanation to apparently non-logical station positions : for example St-Georges or Picpus, that would be hard to find without such a map.

  • Fantastic article! I’ve always assumed Massimo Vignelli to be the father of the modern day subway map. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Thank you for telling this story!

  • Jose

    amazing article. thanks for sharing!

  • dom

    Great article, showing a very important part of design and visual research.
    Yet, I am a bit puzzled. No doubt: Visually, Beck’s diagram is a masterpiece. The teleogical approach of this article (diagram is good, diagram eventually won even in a barbaric nation = Beck is fantastic and he would be honoured by the new maps in France) is simplistic.
    There still are major differences in the principle. The diagrammatic version for Paris metro remains geographically accurate (and lines 2 and 6 are still not a circle nor a rectangle).
    Please don’t forget that objects are meant to be used, even art objects. As a tourist in London, I have to confess that the map of London’s underground is just a nightmare. A beautiful one, though 😉