The London Underground map has to be one of the most recognisable and influential pieces of graphic design globally that there was ever been but it wasn’t designed overnight. In fact, it’s still changing.
With the first section of The London Underground built by the Metropolitan Railway opening in 1863, early maps were a confusing mess. Different maps were published by different companies who owned different lines of the system. Underground lines were superimposed onto street maps for geographical accuracy and station names had to be written in very small type to fit between winding train lines. Another huge problem was the disparity of distance between stations and the huge overall area that the map had to cover. Covent Garden and Leicester Square stations are only around 200m apart however others such as Kings Cross and Farringdon were 1.85km apart and some stations covered by the network were as far as 50 miles outside of central London. In order to avoid maps with a tiny illegible centre and vast amounts of empty space surrounding them, many maps solely focused on central London thus failing to represent a large amount of the network.
Fred Stingmore created a version of the map in 1926 in which he which tried to make spacings between stations more regular and also took more of an artistic licence towards the direction of some of the routes. This meant that the map was in fact no longer a map and was a diagram because it was no longer geographically representative. The ‘map’ also had a social function as the now shorter distances on the map between central London and the suburbs them appear closer and more connected to the centre of the city. This pocket sized map was successful but was still distributed alongside other superimposed street maps. Although Stingmore’s version featured more stations, he was still unable to show them all and 3 lines were cut at the edge of the map.
Next to try and improve the map was Harry Beck, an underground electrical draughtsman who had recently lost his job at the Underground Electric Railway Company of London (UERL). Finding himself with lots more time on his hands, Beck set out to tidy up the tube map based on his knowledge of circuit diagrams. He straightened lines, experimented with diagonals and regimented the distance between stations allowing him to represent even more of the network. He didn’t value geographic accuracy as much as previous designers and stated that people just want to know how to get from one station to another as efficiently as possible. In 1931 he was finished with his first version and after being encouraged by friends, sent his design into UERL however they rejected the design on the basis that it was too radical. You can see that this is where the recognisable style of today’s maps was born.
Despite rejection, Beck continued to work on his design and in 1933 he sent in a new version to the UERL for approval. This time they agreed to the design and paid Beck £10 (£600 in today’s money) for the rights to the map. A run of 750,000 units were printed and they were a hit with customers. The map is instantly familiar and although it wasn’t perfect, it became the template for transport maps all over the world.
Over the next 30 years the design was tweaked to solve design puzzles such as the inclusion of more and more extremities of the network and in 1949 Beck’s favourite iteration of the map was published. I think the recognisability between iterations shows that Beck didn’t just create a singular map but he created a language of colours, lines and symbols through which most of us now understand and think about intracity travel.
In 1960 however, Beck fell out with the UERL (now London Transport) due to the fact that they infringed his copywrite and after a 5 year legal battle he abandoned his relationship with them. He continued to work on the map privately as well as the Paris Metro Map which he had been working on for years.
The current map clearly shows Beck’s overwhelming influence on the language of its design and many details are the same but nudged around to accommodate changes in the network. The current map actually features 270 underground stations, 112 overground stations and 45 DLR, thats nearly twice as many stations as Beck had to contend with. Clearly the map will never be finished due to the evolving city that it aims to navigate however Beck left an incredibly useful legacy from which to work.
The London Underground map is held as the gold standard by which other metro maps are judged due to its ability to communicate a lot of information in a simple and digestible way. The map shows great design both by its accomplishment in succeeding to create a much needed usable tube map but also by its huge historical influence on other maps as well as graphic design in general. I think that the influence of the diagram show how important the communication of information is as well as how much difference the streamlining of it can be.