What The London Underground Map Tells Us Our Relationship with Design
Rather than celebrate the 150th anniversary of the London Underground with the new £2 coins, I wanted to take a swift trip back to the beginning. In 1931 a part-time engineer draftsman sat in the offices of the London Underground. Like designers of all periods, he was working after hours on a pet project. That project turned out to be with one of the most revolutionary information design concepts in history.
As most of you have guessed – the design in question is the London Undeground map. The engineer turned design-legend was Harry Beck. An amusing/alarming fact is that it took about a year for “The Suits” to agree and trial Beck’s radical, uncomissioned, concept. It was another year before it was published on a mass scale. The rest is history. Beck’s map became the blueprint for public transportation maps worldwide and Beck himself spent the next 30 years tweaking his map to near-perfection. He was paid 5 guineas for his map – the equivalent of about £144 in today’s money.
Some things never change, indeed.
Train maps were a popular giveaway with newspapers at the beginning of the twentieth century, and looking at some historical maps will quickly reveal the scale of Beck’s conceptual breakthrough. Navigating the increasingly intricate London Underground network was a design problem. It was waiting for the right solution for decades. Like many major design problems, it was born at the intersection of social change, technological advancements and rapid expansions in commerce.
It seems 1930s spam was much better than what we get nowadays. Tube maps lived side by side with poster campaigns exalting the many benefits of travelling by underground, many displaying levels of craft rarely seen in today’s graphic design. Maps were often given away for free with the evening papers to encourage the public to ride by train. They were a marketing application, a touchpoint – part of a campaign. “Swift and sure” exclaimed a logo tag-line on a 1908 version.
Inside and outside the tube, lavish posters with beautifully illustrated and type-set sang the praises of the London Underground – you needed awareness, you needed to tell people why they should use it, and once they tried it, consistently remind them that they have made the right choice. These are all familiar marketing challenges, but it was the map that sealed the deal. It gave the tube a user interface.
Beck’s tube map was a ground-breaking user interface for The Underground and, by proxy, for London. The tube map reinvents London’s space. It is the reason why tourists often experience London as a group of loosely connected islands. That’s why they will take the tube from Leicester Square to Covent Garden, a journey far quicker by foot and more expensive by the meter than a Concord ticket, according to Lonely Planet.
Londoners have been using a Warp-Drive engine – they step through gateways, into a hyperspace where geographical space has no meaning, replaced by a conceptual network that takes them reliably from A to B.
The tube map is an interface for reality. It’s also an incredibly accessible and easy to use graphic information design piece. For 1930s Londoners, increasingly confounded by the underground labyrinth, finding Beck’s map inside their newspaper is the equivalent of present-day Londoners finding a GPS navigator between the pages of the Evening Standard.
Design defines the operating system of networked humanity: reality’s interface. From this we can say that design decisions may send us down roads as different as splitting the atom for energy or for bombs.
Uri Baruchin, The Partners