Rethinking the Tube map: A design for strife

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Harry Beck's Tube map is an undisputed classic, but a recent attempt to improve on it has derailed the consensus, as Chris Beanland discovers

One simple yet brilliant brainwave has guided travellers around London for 78 years. Harry Beck's Tube map is one of the greatest examples of graphic design in history.

Beck was an engineering draughtsman whose radical idea to straighten out and simplify the Underground lines was way ahead of its time. It was pure modernism. And it has lasted, in different incarnations, right up to the present day.

Geographers talk of mental maps – the way in which the human brain understands the space around it. For tourists and visitors – and even Londoners – the city in their mind's eye is shaped like the city Beck depicted using multicoloured lines set at 45-degree angles.

So when an idea for a new Tube map was unveiled by Mark Noad in June this year, feathers were ruffled. "London is my home town so I know the tube system well and the classic 'Beck' diagram has always worked for me," he says.

"But, in recent years, a number of friends from outside London and overseas have told me they found it confusing and made navigating the city difficult for them. The geographical inaccuracies were obviously an issue for people unfamiliar with London so I thought it was worth looking at the map again to see if there was an alternative approach."

So the designer took a brave step – he reimagined the map without Beck's commitment to straight lines. Noad's map looks more like how London looks – with stations placed nearer to their true geographic locations.

Not everyone is enamoured with it. "Noad's design in particular seems to be simply an update of the geographically correct map designs that were ditched when Beck's design came along. "I don't think there's any point in radically redesigning something that's so successful," Angus Montgomery, news editor of the website Design Week, says.

Yet perhaps there is something to love about this map? The London Overground network that loops around the outside of the city makes much more sense on it. As a recent member of the TfL family, its current mapping is not yet up to scratch – and its integration with the current Tube map is shoddy.

And perhaps this points to the real problem. Noad says his beef is not with Beck's original, but rather with the way TfL mandarins have tweaked it: "If Harry Beck saw the current diagram, I don't think he would be happy to put his name to it. So I wondered what he might do if asked to start again with the different parameters we have today." "TfL's tweaks have had varying success," Montgomery says. "I was surprised at how angry people got when the Thames was removed from the map last year. I'm interested in how TfL is going to deal with any new lines that are added to the map – there's a chance they could run out of colours."

Beck's map is a sacred cow. It's more than a map or a diagram, more than a way to find yourself or your friends or your colleagues or your lover, more than a way to understand London's shape. In some ways it actually is London. In a city of such diversity and with so many incongruous forms and so many disparate neighbourhoods, Beck's map is a picture of the single city.

In the wake of the recent unrest, Beck's Tube map is another one of those small things that glues everyone who lives in London together as one – not least because public transport by its nature is used by everyone from commuting City workers to schoolchildren getting to their classrooms.

"We are not rooted to Beck's map because it is iconic, we are rooted to it because it works," says Claire Dobbin, who takes a break from writing a book about the history of the map to provide her opinion. "When it was first introduced, Beck's map embodied the very essence of modern functionalism that underpinned the Underground's design philosophy. It was fit for purpose. It is capable of serving, living and growing with the city it has come to represent. So why change it?" Dobbin, who is also curating a major exhibition on the map at the London Transport Museum next year, adds: "It is one of the most widely recognised maps in the world."

But others are more positive. "I applaud Mark Noad and anyone else who wants to throw their ideas in," says Mark Ovenden, author of the wonderfully entertaining coffee-table tome Metro Maps of the World. "There are a number of other extremely talented map-makers out there too, like Max Roberts – who's produced an entire gamut of styles and solutions to map the Underground." So what about the metro maps of other world cities? Who does it well? Ovenden laughs: "Big question! The Moscow one is funky because they have that wonderful circle line to play with. Tokyo is fun because it's just so mad and busy. Barcelona is probably the most London-esque, with the same ticks for station makers and the same interchange symbols. Most of the German ones are achingly perfect."

Berlin's current U and S-Bahn map obviously tips its cap to Beck. It was designed by Erik Spiekermann.

"My Berlin transit diagram owes a lot to Beck," Spiekermann says. "It works very well for the Tube. It never pretends to work for other types of journeys. The only reason people are using it for everything else is that is appears to be so simple, hiding the whole complexity of London underneath those few lines and angles.

"Most German transport systems imitate Berlin. But they all suffer from information overload."

One question remains. Is Beck's Tube map actually a map at all? Or is it a diagram? "Although I always refer to the design as a 'map' I think I'd agree with Erik Spiekermann that it's technically a diagram," Montgomery says. "Regardless of the semantics, the success or failure of 'map' designs hangs in how they balance legibility and detail and how they address the target audience. In this, Beck's design succeeds admirably."

Noad says: "The semantic debate is a bit of a distraction." Dobbin says: "Short answer? It's a diagrammatic map. It functions as a map – London's travelling public uses it to plan and execute journeys from A to B. It just uses a diagrammatic form of representation."

Beck's map may not appear as perfect as it once seemed – yet, today, it's still influencing designers and map-makers around the world. It is a true classic. But then again it was Beck's own wild innovation back in 1931 that resulted in such a brave leap forward – so perhaps it's time for today's young design guns to think radically about redesigning the Tube map once more.

But could technology eventually usurp maps altogether?

Spiekerman says: "The more we'll have our maps on our smartphones, the more we need just an easy overview as a reminder of the connections in the system. We'll pick up the detail as we get nearer the destination."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - An outstanding senior opportunity for...

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower