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Mapping the Underground

22 July 2013
London tube map

Iconic London Underground route diagram created by HC Beck in 1931.

Engineers are often expected to meet specified requirements rather than match aesthetics to usability or explore complex design relationships, reports Ralph Adam.

Some organisations are, however, noted for their emphasis on integrated design. Take Transport for London (TFL) and its predecessors. They have long been renowned for seeing every object, whether a station or a bus, as a complete work of art: from lettering, through building and vehicle design, to such minor features as seat fabrics, benches, lamps and ticket machines. Not to forget posters by distinguished graphic artists. Best-known is the ‘iconic’ London Underground route diagram.

A design superimposed on a topographical map first appeared in 1908, though it was not until 1931 that HC Beck created the geometric style still in use today (other cities, such as Berlin, had tried schematic maps earlier, but none has had a similar impact). Beck created his own design rules and followed them strictly, taking the Central line as the focus. For example, he insisted that each line had its own colour, that stations should be on straight sections of line and that lines could only be horizontal, vertical or at 45˚; curves must have tight radii. The use of ‘ticks’ to mark stations was another innovation. However, the idea that Beck’s concept originated from electrical circuit diagrams is a myth.

Beck considered that, as most lines in central London were below ground, geography was irrelevant: passengers’ greatest concern is to visualise routes and connections clearly. Even so, many people use the tube map to navigate London on foot!

Beck, an engineering draughtsman in London Transport’s Signals Office, created the diagram in his spare time, receiving an unenthusiastic response from his employers as the map did not indicate distances. Indeed, he received almost no recognition for his efforts during his lifetime (he died in 1974). Surprisingly, only Beck seemed to realise that passengers wanted clear, easily-understood information that allowed for simple journey planning. Research suggests that not only can a map’s design strongly influence travel choices (and, therefore, service utilisation); the very fact that a station appears on an official Underground map attracts passengers. A fascinating study of the psychology underlying transport maps, using the author’s own digitisations and focusing on London, was published recently: ‘Underground maps unravelled: explorations in information design’ by Maxwell J Roberts (ISBN: 978-0-9572664-0-7). It analyses the development of underground maps by comparing styles to help us understand what constitutes good design, both in terms of way-finding and publicity material.

While London has influenced travel mapping worldwide, some cities (notably Paris and New York) have refused to take the diagrammatic route. We are currently in a period of major underground railway expansion: Moscow and Paris are building many new lines, including transverse ones (Moscow’s mayor considers a city of 10m to need about 1000 miles of underground railway), while massive systems are being built in Asia (the Chinese capital, Peking, is expanding its network from two lines in 2002 to 19 by 2020!). New, integrated systems are, of course, simpler to map and understand than those built up incrementally; but, as with all projects, usability remains crucial.

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