Opened 150 years ago, the London Underground is not only the oldest metro system in the world, but also the source of a graphic design revolution that has influenced the way information is communicated on transportation maps worldwide.
Before 1933, the London Underground authorities experimented with different kinds of maps, which were often difficult to read because they were designed like regular maps, showing the correct distances between stations and their actual locations over a city map, as in this 1926 example:
1926 London Tube map by Reginald Percy Gossop
Transportation system maps everywhere had more or less the same problem, until Harry Beck, an engineer working for the London Underground, decided to spend some of his free time designing a clearer map for the Tube.
His goal was to make the map easier to read by focusing on the information that mattered most to passengers, i.e. how to get from one station to another.
Beck finished his map in 1931 and it was so revolutionary that it took him nearly two years to convince the London Underground authorities to show it to the public. When Beck’s design was finally introduced, it was an instant hit. Here’s why:
1933 London Tube map by Harry Beck
Beck was the first to draw a transportation system map using both a clear color code and a simplified design that ignores actual geography, replacing it with lines that are only horizontal, vertical or at a 45° angle.
The result is extremely easy to read and is still used as the basis of countless transportation maps worldwide, including of course the current London Tube Map:
Few of us think about design in front of a transportation map, but the ingenuity and elegance of solutions like Harry Beck’s play a crucial role in making cities more readable and user-friendly for millions every day.