Harry Beck’s London tube map design has been used by passengers on the Underground network since the 1930s. But in that time London’s transport system has grown and changed considerably and new lines have been added to the diagram alongside a range of other details, while the map is now just as likely to be viewed on a smart phone as on a station platform. So does Beck’s design classic need updating?
Designer Mark Noad began working on a version of the tube map a few years ago and it differs from Beck’s original in one fundamental way. “As a Londoner, I’ve always taken the tube map for granted,” says Noad, “but as a designer, I’ve listened with interest to friends from outside London and overseas saying how confusing they find it especially when trying to relate it to London at street level.”
Noad’s unofficial map “takes as its starting point the location of each station and, although there are still compromises with distance in the outer zones of the system, the stations are geographically accurate in relation to each other,” he says.
While the designer believes that Beck’s original is “one of the greatest designs of the 20th century” and that “the current diagram still follows the same principles”, the problem is that “they have not been applied with any great care. As a result,” claims Noad, “I do not believe Beck would have been happy to put his name to the current version.”
For an expert opinion, CR talked to designer Ken Garland (who wrote the book Mr Beck’s Underground Map in 1994), about Noad’s new version of the map.
Creative Review: What did Harry Beck’s map get so right, and why is his design still regarded so highly today?
Ken Garland: For some time before Beck’s invention, it was accepted that the central area of the Underground was not represented in a way that clearly showed connections; and since 1933 was the scheduled date for the unification of the system, it was the ideal time to tackle the information problem. It was very much the right idea at the right time and the public took to it immediately.
CR: Beck’s design is a 20th-century classic, but is there anything in it that doesn’t now work quite as well?
KG: Beck’s design was inherently sturdy and capable of development, which he demonstrated ably until 1959, and which his successors (apart from the egregious Harold Hutchison [who removed all curves from the lines in 1960]) were able to build on effectively, for the most part. It may be argued that the increasing complexity of rapid transit systems within the London area now require a fresh look at the diagram, and for this reason we should always be prepared to look at alternative proposals.
CR: Have you seen many ‘redesigns’ of the tube map before this one?
KG: I have seen a number of alternative proposals over the last 30 years; to date, none have, to me, been satisfactory. But I believe that should not prevent continuing invention. The most common error is the failure to test out new designs; surely, by now we should accept that this is a sine qua non.
CR: What do you think of Mark Noad’s idea of relating the tube map more to the ‘true’ geography of street-level London?
KG: I am impressed by Mark Noad’s proposition. It is the best one I have seen so far. As I am sure Mark would agree, there are some features that need more attention, but I believe it is capable of offering a challenging alternative to the present diagram.
At first sight, the combination of diagram and map in Noad’s design runs counter to all I had come to accept in Beck’s diagram; but there is a reassuring clarity about it which I cannot discount. The closer relevance to the geography of London is, if other features work well, an advantage. On the whole I like the treatment of interchange stations, though I can’t see how a smaller size can incorporate the network rail symbol and the ring (I have before me only the poster size). I also like the smooth curves (not at all easy to create) in the route lines.
CR: What are the features you think might need more attention?
KG: There are a few niggles: there are 14 different colours or tones to denote the variety of routes. I doubt whether many users could effectively discriminate between this many. There is good experimental evidence that more than nine colours, used in this way, may result in confusion; and the inclusion of the Heathrow Express, London Overground and Croydon Tramlink, not much differentiated from the Underground network, may add to the confusion. And finally, the irregular, unmemorable shape of the inner circle is questionable. Notwithstanding the niggles, I think Noad’s design is well worth consideration.
CR: Noad’s point seems to be that the current LU map has lost sight of how its principles of clarity are applied: he wanted to create something that Beck might come up with now. Has he?
KG: Of course, we would all love to know what Beck would have thought of the present diagram. I suspect he would think Mark’s proposal well worthy of serious consideration: in the 1960s he had himself experimented with alternative designs using diagonals of 27 degrees and 63 degrees to the horizontal, or converting the Circle Line into an ellipse.
CR: Can you envisage a time when London Underground might use a map which is more like Noad’s?
KG: I have no access to the forward thinking of Transport for London but I think it is possible that an alternative of this kind could be examined by them. However, I must emphasise that it should be rigorously tested. The last thing we want is the disaster of the much trumpeted and superficially stunning Vignelli design of the 1970s for the New York system, which was rejected by the travelling public because they just couldn’t understand it.
Mark Noad’s map can be downloaded from london-tubemap.com and is available from the App Store. See also kengarland.co.uk