What Would Harry Beck Say?

Befuddled travellers on the London Underground are currently being helped on their way with free, fold-out maps bearing this distinctive interpretation of the famous Tube Map by artist David Shrigley

OK, so it’s not meant as an alternative to Harry Beck’s map (the original masterpiece of information design can be found on the reverse) but Shrigley’s impassioned scrawl does offer an apposite, present-day response to the rational certainties implied by Beck. The latter’s original map was introduced in 1931 and, although updated several times since, the core design has endured. The network, however, has not aged so well. Beck’s map was introduced at a time of great confidence and pride in the Tube. Under Frank Pick’s direction it became world-renowned for every aspect of its design. Beck’s map exuded authority and control – getting from A to B was simply a matter of following its colour-coded tendrils.

But now, when Londoners and visitors alike are forced daily to run a gauntlet of the line closures, suspensions, signal faults and security alerts that are endemic in the ailing network, Beck’s confidence seems sadly misplaced. It’s Shrigley’s chaos that more closely portrays what it feels like to use the Tube in 2006.

Shrigley Tube Map

Befuddled travellers on the London Underground are currently being helped on their way with free, fold-out maps bearing this distinctive interpretation of the famous Tube Map by artist David Shrigley

OK, so it’s not meant as an alternative to Harry Beck’s map (the original masterpiece of information design can be found on the reverse) but Shrigley’s impassioned scrawl does offer an apposite, present-day response to the rational certainties implied by Beck. The latter’s original map was introduced in 1931 and, although updated several times since, the core design has endured. The network, however, has not aged so well. Beck’s map was introduced at a time of great confidence and pride in the Tube. Under Frank Pick’s direction it became world-renowned for every aspect of its design. Beck’s map exuded authority and control – getting from A to B was simply a matter of following its colour-coded tendrils.

But now, when Londoners and visitors alike are forced daily to run a gauntlet of the line closures, suspensions, signal faults and security alerts that are endemic in the ailing network, Beck’s confidence seems sadly misplaced. It’s Shrigley’s chaos that more closely portrays what it feels like to use the Tube in 2006.

The work (which appears on some 5 million maps) was, however, commissioned under the auspices of one of the few Good Things about today’s tube: Transport For London’s Platform for Art initiative. In a society that questions the value of any activity which cannot point to an instant financial return, this public art programme is a rare treasure. Gloucester Road station on the District and Circle line is the main hub, with a rolling programme of four shows a year at platform level (currently Chiho Aoshima’s beautiful City Glow, Mountain Whisper), while Piccadilly Circus’s ticket hall and Subway Exit 2 also host shows throughout the year. Many other stations have also hosted temporary exhibitions.

Perhaps rather than Shrigley’s witticisms, Beck would be rather more horrified by all the renegade versions of his map which are floating around. As revealed by tube blog Going Underground guidebook publishers too cheap to pay TfL for the reproduction rights of the map, simply re-draw their own, frequently error-strewn, versions, while French site Subway Navigator has a whole host of maps from around the world, apparently re-drawn by some enterprising Illustrator fiend at the Paris Transport Authority, RATP. How many mistakes can you spot?

PS For the genuine trainspotters among you, Metro Bits has a fine collection of logos for subway systems around the world

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