As London is celebrating 150 years of the London Underground, Swide thought it was only right to highlight the man behind today’s iconic tube map… Harry Beck.
England’s capital is celebrating 150years of the London Underground and the cultural impact that it has had on the big smoke. One thing that has been taken for granted over the years is the tube map; helping locals, confused tourists and even royalty navigate their way across the bustling city, the tube map has become an essential part of a Londoner’s daily business, not to mention that of tourists, but we rarely think about its history.
Well, that pocket-sized, foldable and line laden guide should be respected by all and thanks are owed to one man in particular, Harry Beck. What he did was to go on and set the standard of transport maps the world over.
Until 1933, the map’s design concentrated on the actually geographical location of each tube station. 1908’s design seen above, for example, shows the tube lines overlapping and crossing each other, something which Beck found niggling and set upon changing in 1931. Joining the company during the 1920s, Beck worked as an engineering draughtsman at the London Underground Signals Office. When Fred Stingemore, the man who was responsible for drafting out the maps since 1926, found it increasingly difficult to difficult to squeeze new lines on to the geographically accurate maps, Beck suggested the use of Topology. The Map of 1932, seen below, was about to change forever.
Using a system based on electrical circuit diagrams, Beck’s map was stripped down to basics and built using straight vertical and horizontal lines, 45-degree diagonal lines with equal distances between stations and a simple use of Keys to identify interchange stations.
His first drafts were scrapped by the Undergrounds publicity department, until 1933 saw a trial pocket version was published, above. And history was made! It’s first official full publication of 700,000 copies proved so successful with commuters that a reprint was urgently required only one month later.
Harry Beck had invented what was to become tje template to the London Underground system and a template that was to set the standard of transport maps all over the world.
Harry Beck continue to work on the design of the map until the 1960s, by which time he had left his position with the London Underground and had began teaching typography and colour design at the London School of Printing and Kindred Trades.
Although the impact of his redesign was felt immediately, Beck wasn’t acknowledged for his service until the early 1990s. The BBC eventually recognized the brainchild behind what is regarded by London’s Design Museum as their second-favourite British design of the 20th century on British television in 2006… and 2013 is all about Beck once again. It has also been subject to designers finding innovative ways to use the map as art, like the animals of Paul Middlewick, below.
The London Underground isn’t the only legacy that Harry Beck left behind; he also went on to submit designs for the Paris metro system, the entire rail system of the London Region and his work was used by the Royal Mail for a set of postage stamps in 2009.
What Harry Beck did is still used but with different, more eco friendly, forms of public transport… the bike. There is a campaign for Harry Beck-style cycling maps of the London Cycle Network… a difficult feat as, unlike the underground, you have to follow the route yourself and so a coherent and appropriately designed route would require more than the simplistic vision of Beck.
For more about Harry Beck, visit the London Transport Museum.