Harry Beck famously redesigned the London underground map in 1933.

Original tube map design by Harry Beck

Original tube map design by Harry Beck

He was an engineering draughtsman at the London Underground Signals Office, and he realised that – when you’re underground – the map doesn’t have to represent actual geography.

So he redrew it using equal distances between stations joined by vertical, horizontal and 45-degree diagonal lines*. This became the model for underground maps around the world and is still used to this day.

Back-of-an-envelope design

It even inspired me in a 1974 science lesson when studying the relationship between chemical reactions. The teacher told us the diagram in the book was unclear, and set us homework to simplify it.

My back-of-an-envelope homework from 1974

I worked out my answer on the back of an envelope. Literally.

When I tidied it up and submitted my design, the teacher was so impressed that she wanted to send it to the publishers for future editions. I don’t know if she ever did, but – believe it or not – I still have the envelope! (The other side bears a typewritten address and two 3 1/2p stamps – those were the days!)

Don’t worry, I am not a collector of old envelopes. I suppose I must have been proud of the teacher’s response and I’ve used the envelope to store my home-made Christmas gift tags ever since.

The Beck system was based on electrical circuit diagrams, and as you can see, mine was based on his.

Tube map Middlewick

Animals by Paul Middlewick

Happy 151st birthday to the Tube

Anyway, the London Underground celebrated its 150th birthday last year, and there are probably at least 150 ways of mapping the lines.

One of my favourites is the animals by Paul Middlewick– just for fun – while Dr Max Roberts aimed to declutter the Beck version by creating a design based on concentric circles. I especially like the fact that the centre of the design echoes the London Transport logo. Neat.

Tube map based on circles, by Dr Max Roberts

As with all information design, it’s a fine balance between form (style) and function (usability).

And now, another design has hit the social media airwaves.

Jug Cerović has enlarged the centre of the map to make it easier to read, laid out the stations to make geographic sense, labelled each line with its initial, and added the overground in a loop. The intention is to make the map easier to read, especially in a small size, and to standardise it with other underground maps.

Tube map Cerovic

New design by Jug Cerović

It’s pretty, but I’m still not sure it answers all the problems, because adding the initials of each line still means you need a key for users to understand what the initials stand for. Also, Gatwick is shown but the the Gatwick Express from Victoria is missing – which is particularly odd if the map is intended for tourists.

Map apps

There are complaints every time Apple or Google update their maps, but interactive maps have a massive advantage over any printed versions. The thing is, people only need to know where they want to go to and from. They don’t need to know how the rest of the map fits together.

With map apps, you can input your start point and destination to plot your route on a ‘need to know’ basis, taking into account up-to-the-minute data about delays. The rest of the layout is ‘nice to know’ only, and contributes to the information overload that we all suffer these days.

Apps are the way to go! For example, students at Stanford University developed a map app to help newbies find their way around campus. Poor old print is a poor relation compared with the power of the Tube Map app.

Why you need to know this

Items such as maps, navigation and signage are known as ‘information design’ in the trade**. So are back-end business documents such as forms and invoices.

These may not be ‘sexy’ but they are just as important as your glossy front-end advertising and marketing, because they influence how easy it is for customers to find what they want and do business with you.

I can help with that.

Tube map actual

Tube lines overlaid on geographic map


Edited Jan 2018 to add this TED video from Facebook:


*The downside is that sometimes you don’t realise it’s actually easier to walk from one station to the next rather than travel between them underground.

**I was on the original Information Design Association Committee.

1 Comment

Jackie · December 10, 2014 at 5:40 pm

And here’s the medieval version


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