The Genius of Harry Beck’s 1933 London Tube Map–and How It Revolutionized Subway Map Design Everywhere

The sub­way is a mar­vel of engi­neer­ing, and so is the mod­ern sub­way map.

For the first 25 years of its exis­tence, Lon­don Under­ground rid­ers relied on a map that reflect­ed the actu­al dis­tance between sta­tions, as well as rivers, parks, and oth­er above­ground phe­nom­e­na.

As design­er Michael Bierut observes in the video at the top, the rad­i­cal­ly revised approach it final­ly adopt­ed in 1933 proved so intu­itive and easy to use, it remains the uni­ver­sal tem­plate for mod­ern sub­way maps.

The brain­child of Har­ry Beck, a young drafts­man in the Lon­don Under­ground Sig­nals Office, the new map is more accu­rate­ly a dia­gram that pri­or­i­tized rid­ers’ needs.

He did away with all above­ground ref­er­ences save the Thames, and replot­ted the sta­tions at equidis­tant points along col­or-cod­ed straight lines.

This innovation—for which he was paid about $8—helped rid­ers to glean at a glance where to make the sub­ter­ranean con­nec­tions that would allow them to trav­el from point A to point B.

The for­mer senior cura­tor of Lon­don Trans­port Muse­um, Anna Ren­ton, said in an inter­view with The Verge that Beck’s design may have helped per­suade city dwellers to make the leap to sub­urbs ser­viced by the Under­ground “by mak­ing them look clos­er to the cen­ter, and show­ing how easy it was to com­mute.”

It’s not Beck’s fault if ser­vice falls short of his map’s effi­cient ide­al, par­tic­u­lar­ly on nights and week­ends, when track work and ser­vice advi­sories abound, ren­der­ing such com­mutes a night­mare.

The appeal of sub­way map-themed sou­venirs is also a tes­ta­ment to the visu­al appeal of Beck’s orig­i­nal design, espe­cial­ly giv­en that such pur­chas­es are not lim­it­ed to tourists.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ani­mat­ed GIFs Show How Sub­way Maps of Berlin, New York, Tokyo & Lon­don Com­pare to the Real Geog­ra­phy of Those Great Cities

A Won­der­ful Archive of His­toric Tran­sit Maps: Expres­sive Art Meets Pre­cise Graph­ic Design

The Roman Roads of Britain Visu­al­ized as a Sub­way Map

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Mon­day, April 23 for the third install­ment of her lit­er­ary-themed vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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