A brief history of lines

by agwelch

Feature for New Design magazine on mapping the London Underground

Image credit: London Transport Museum

Standing, naturally, on the Jubilee Line, my eye was caught by flashes of hot pink augmenting the gunmetal grey of the Stanmore to Stratford route representation. The Olympics are coming to town and certain tube maps have been updated to include the relevant stations for Games venues. A closer look reveals that the ‘Emirates Air Line’ (the cable car linking Greenwich Peninsula to the Royal Docks) is now marked as an interchange possibility at North Greenwich.

The London Underground map, purists and pedants will argue that it might more accurately be referred to as a diagram, evolves with the city and its fortunes. It is a celebrated icon of design and, arguably, the world’s most recognizable map. The map is part of the fabric of London; District and Circle, Hammersmith and City are inseparable from our understanding of the city; it’s an urban DNA constantly mutating to reflect the flux of the metropolis. However, its model is defined not by the double helix of Crick and Watson, but the 45 degrees of Harry Beck.

It is remarkable that the map we are so familiar with today has been shaped predominantly by the efforts of enthusiastic amateurs. Harry Beck, the man oft-celebrated as the progenitor of the diagrammatic map, made his first attempt at mapping the network after being laid off as a draughtsman by the Underground Railway Company in 1931. Future generations would treat the map as a hobby, an out-of-hours challenge, and it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that design of the map was ‘professionalized’.

Whilst many, particularly those with an interest in design, cartography, or London, will be familiar with Beck’s name, the history of the tube map encompasses an ensemble cast and involves a fair share of intrigue and ego. Over the years, the map has been subject to non-stop revisions and tinkering. Representing the London Underground is design’s Sisyphean task.

Pre-Beck, maps, as in the example designed by the Dickensian-named F.H. Stingemore, sought to be faithful to geography but tended, as a result, to be confusing and difficult to read. Beck’s celebrated breakthrough was to realize that when using an underground rail network, surface geography is essentially irrelevant – what is of concern is the sequence of stations and the relationship of the various lines through interchanges.

An example of a ‘geographical’ pre-Beck map, this one by FH Stingemore.
Image credit: London Transport Museum

Using the Central Line as a horizontal base, Beck built the rest of the map using perpendicular lines and 45-degree diagonals. The fundamental geographical liberty was to enlarge the central area (within the perimeter of the present-day Circle Line), where the density of stations is the greatest, at the expense of the suburbs. In addition to these two principles, Beck introduced further rules that would influence the design of the London Underground map (and the mapping of almost every other urban rail system) to the present day: a particular interchange symbol is used, street details are not shown, stations are denoted by tickmarks, and different lines are represented by distinctive colours.

Beck’s diagrammatic breakthrough (1933)
Image credit: London Transport Museum

We might take Beck’s solution for granted now, but it is worth remembering that his approach was contrary to the entire tradition of map-making and its preoccupation with reflecting space and place as accurately as possible.

Of course, diagrammatic maps introduce certain pitfalls for the unwary – travel writer Bill Bryson relates a practical joke one can play on an unsuspecting tourist which involves asking the victim to navigate their way from Bank to Mansion House with the aid of a tube map. They spend the best part of half an hour making various connections whilst you stroll the 200 yards that separate the stations on the surface. However, such quirks are vastly outweighed by the improvement to legibility and network navigation afforded by a diagram.

Beck’s work impressed his superiors enough to get him his job back at London Transport and for the next three decades he continued to refine his map, designing regular updates for station posters and pocket versions . In the words of Maxwell J Roberts, author of Underground Maps After Beck, “his contribution was not only to have identified a set of design rules that have withstood the test of time, but also his creativity and innovation within his self-imposed constraints, and those imposed on him by others.”

Harry Beck’s place in design history might now be secure, but in the early 1960s he was, once again, dumped by London Transport in what appears to have been an acrimonious falling out with the organisation’s publicity officer Harold F Hutchinson. The story goes that Hutchinson felt he could do a better job himself and from 1961 a series of maps bearing his name were issued. These, according to Roberts, were a “ham-fisted parody” of Beck’s work. Beck exchanged letters of an increasingly litigious tone with London Transport but he was never called upon to design a map for them again

Following the Hutchinson affair, another plucky amateur, Paul Garbutt, enters the scene. Garbutt, employed as assistant secretary and works officer at London Transport, redesigned the map in his Christmas holiday and submitted his vision over Hutchinson’s head. Garbutt proposed a back to basics, or ‘back to Beck’, approach and maps bearing Garbutt’s name were issued by London Transport up until 1984. One of Garbutt’s most significant tweaks was to introduce the ‘thermos flask’ shape for the Circle Line, a configuration that has proven versatile and longstanding.

Paul Garbutt’s 1972 map featuring the ‘thermos flask’ Circle Line.
Image credit: London Transport Museum

In the name of progress, the 1980s brought two major changes: responsibility for the map was outsourced to external professional agencies for the first time and the whole design process, from conception to printing, became computerized.

Designers were forced to deal with a network that was increasingly a political playground – the route of the Jubilee Line, for example, was volleyed around the GLC by Ken Livingstone (remember him?). Meanwhile, the development of the Docklands Light Railway required a complete rethink of the map’s southeast corner.

The extraordinary achievement of the tube map, which to this day is influenced by Beck’s diagrammatic principles, is that, as Roberts puts it neatly, “it has not just been a guide to the system, but an advertisement for it.” The visual language of the map is so striking, so familiar, so quintessentially London, that it is constantly referenced in Transport for London’s own promotional or informational material, not to mention in the work of countless other designers, whatever their purpose might be.

On a recent tube hop I noticed three advertisements (one for a WiFi provider, one for a law school, and one for a brand of headache pill) that played on the diagrammatic representation of the London Underground – I know there are many more.

An ongoing exhibition at the London Transport Museum (Mind the Map: inspiring art, design and cartography, to 28 October) explores in detail the story of the underground map as well as celebrating its status as creative catalyst for practitioners working in all branches of the arts. It is certainly worth a visit – as for getting there? The Piccadilly Line to Covent Garden , the Bakerloo Line to Charing Cross and the Northern Line to Leicester Square are all reasonable options: consult the map and the choice, thanks to Harry Beck, is yours.