2013 marks the 150th Anniversary of the London Underground and the 80th Anniversary of the publication of Harry Beck’s famous mapThe London Underground map, or schematic diagram, was first conceived in 1931 when he was a temporarily employed engineering draughtsman, and published in 1933 and has gone on to receive widespread critical acclaim as a design classic. Beck took a tangle of geographically muddled lines and names of the London Underground network and sought to improve it for passengers.The map is still used as the basis for London's transport mapping and has inspired many other versions for metro systems worldwide. However, it has also spawned countless imitations and been used as a basis for a wide array of artistic re-imaginations.
Henry Charles “Harry” Beck is responsible for designing one of the most iconic maps ever produced.This picture is of Beck in 1965 (age 63) holding the exercise book sketch made in 1931.The plaque is displayed outside Finchley Road Tube station in memory of his work.Our assertion here is that Beck’s map is over-used as a template or inspiration for other work. It has suffered years of abuse and that has potentially diluted its own place in cartographic history.There are three main ways it is used
Retained and iterated by TfLBy TfL who have used the basic design since its inception (not always successfully). The ideas behind Beck’s map live on in the current design but, of course, the network has grown immeasurably since 1931.Certainly some question as to whether Beck would have approached today’s system with the same design.
As a basis for other metro mapping (e.g. Massimo Vignelli's New York 1972 plus many others).Most other major cities with metros use a modified version of Beck’s ideas. Some work very well and have spawned good maps in their own right.Others experiment (e.g. with different angles of line) and some just fail due to poor application of the technique or an ill-fitting approach to their own specific network…and because it’s easy to generate alternatives many just keep on iterating.
As a design template for pastiche…we’ll call it “Becksploitation”Why do people use Beck’s map?- recognition; simplicity; vehicle…because they can (software) or because their geography needs the same treatment?It is so iconic and widely known that it immediately generates interest when others base their own work on the same design ideas.Is this imitation the sincerest form of flattery? Or are people trying to gain a head start in trying to get their own work recognised?This is the map that started the trend for making a tube map of anything. 1992: The Great Bear, Simon PattersonReplaced stations on each line with the names of famous people, with each line dedicated to a particular group – footballers, scientists, actors, philosophers, engineers and so on.
Early October 2013 after the Football Association published their map, Jamie Quinn published this reaction which sums up how Bill and I feel.
It’s clear that maps based on Beck’s evidence a very clear lineage from his ideas; and many do so from a tacit assumption that it’s a perfect mapBeck wasn’t a cartographer so where did he get his design cues? Was his work as original as we presume?
London Transport 1874
1889: guidebook entitled: "London and its Environs: Handbook for Travellers" by Leipsic Karl BaedekerShows District Railway and Metropolitan Lines and their completed Circle Line, opened in 1884.
1905: Sampson Low, Marston & Company, in same style as Britain's railway maps produced since the first railways in the 1840sOverprinted on topographic basemap but it’s hard to see the detail.This map is a late example of how the earlier underground maps looked from 1863, when the first underground railway was opened, until around 1906.Lines for the District trains in red where other lines are in blue.Stations for steam trains are rectangular and those served by electric trains are shown with circles
1906: First pocket sized maps1908: first map of combined Underground railway companiesNOT geographically accurateMetropolitan Route from West Hampstead is distorted to run due west to allow space for the legend.So some 23 years before Beck’s diagram we see the straightening out of a route into a horizontal line.While this doesn’t necessarily set precedent for Beck’s work, it indicates a tolerance for geographical inaccuracy.The principle of using different colours (hues) to denote different linesBlobs symbolize stations and interchanges
1907 London Evening News
1908: idea of straightening out the route to show merely connections was a way of advertising the route at stations.
1912:Johnson Riddle & CoGeographical distortion in the North West of the map, similar to that on the 1908 map, which flattens out and moves the Metropolitan Line.Clearly see beginnings of a diagrammatic approach to mapping the network.
1921 Pocket map by MacDonald Gill.Attractive and individual styleNo background detail but retained geographical layoutInterchange stations are shown with white centresWhite line connectors can be seen at Baker Street, Kings Cross and Camden Town stations.Major new step towards simplifying the understanding of the underground network.
1929: London & North Eastern Railway (LNER). George Dow designed and drew railway network diagrams.He straightened out the tangled geographical linesAllows eyes to flow effortlessly along each route on the map.Dispensed with background detail.Circles of various designs for station symbols.
1932 pocket map1925-1932, Fred Stingemore (draughtsman for Underground organisation) produced the pocket Underground maps on tri-folded card.Compression of the outlying lines in comparison to the intricate and congested central area.Still basically a geographical layout but removal of all of the ground level detail except the River Thames.Highly generalised lines with straight and gently curving segments
Had Beck seen any of this work?Beck lived in East Finchley & travelled on the local trains where this map was displayed.So Beck was clearly influenced but he didn’t wait until he had everything figured out before he had a go. He got creative.Beck’s map is applied geography at its best…he didn’t wait around endlessly debating the conceptual framework or philosophical approach…he wasn’t even a cartographer but he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.He turned his design ideas into a physical process and laid his ideas out.In an interview with biographer Ken Garland Beck’s wife is on record as saying he plastered notes and small sketches all over their house.
Beck’s original 1931 sketch for the diagram made on two pages of an exercise book during a period when he was unemployed. No-one asked him to make the map; he just did it.Contains all the significant features of all future versions but you can clearly see the creative process with the many erased and altered components.Simplification of route lines to verticals, horizontals and 45 degree linesBlobs for stationsExpansion of the central areaElimination of all surface detail except the River Thames (itself stylised)It’s a rough sketch but although you can see design cues, it’s original.
1931: Hand drawn prepublication drawingMany of the design cues had already been established.Beck almost certainly applied Dow’s, and others’, design principles to his map
1931: Hand drawn prepublication drawingBlobs denote stationsRings denote interchanges (though Finsbury park is symbolized with diamonds...merely to illustrate a different design treatment).Beck showed this design to some colleagues who persuaded him to send it to the publicity department....and Frank Pick.Thought to be ‘too revolutionary’ and handed back.Beck later made another version.This time the Publicity Department called him in and said they would print a test run.
1933:Trial print run of Beck’s pocket Underground mapMap was accepted very well and Beck’s map was born.It was so obviously useful, helpful and public appreciated that its designer was himself an ordinary, tube travelling commuter concerned for their information needs and not for novelty for its own sake.Here then we see the importance of the designer truly understanding the user’s need and using that to inform a design that works functionally as well as aesthetically.Diamonds for interchangesLess overbearing ticks for stations which have remained until today’s map.The commercial value to London Transport and the rest of the world is immeasurablePaid 10 guineas ($18…which at today’s prices would be about $500), probably about two weeks wages in those days.In his own time and on his own initiative, as an ex-employee he invented a way to represent London’s underground network in diagrammatic form laying emphasis on its connections rather than geography. It was flatly rejected then he had another go which was cautiously accepted; he was paid a derisory fee (though he was re-employed he remained temporary until 1937); it was published again inviting comment; it was roundly accepted and the rest is history.
Beck made the map he wanted to make. He based his map on his knowledge and experience. He made a map using techniques he knew...and wasn’t swayed by calls to make the map a particular way. He was his own man!We make maps because they help us tell a story, share ideas and describe to people something about geography that would be difficult to communicate using any other mechanism. We gain pleasure in the act of making a map we like.Beck was avant-garde; he pushed the boundaries and created something different, innovative and experimental at a similar time to many other writers and artists....but it was the function of navigating the network that remained central to his design
So creative is good...but do we really need a biblical version?RENAMED
Or an upside down one?REWORKED
And this is what happens when you ignore function.What’s the point? There needs to be a point to making your map.
Derivative work never really captures the craft of making an original map. It often appears unstructured and lacking in thought.This isn’t really getting your hands dirty?It’s a short-cut approach that rides on the coat-tails of someone else’s hard work?It’s getting the job done and getting to the pub...
Beck’s map was a hobby...he was messing around with ideas and just happened upon a genius idea.Quite often our most creative work comes from the marriage of our professional lives with our other passions.
But if your hobby is simply redrawing Beck’s map using curves it probably suggests you need a new hobby.These maps add little to the critique of design for transport mapping.Maxwell Roberts
Doing good work is one thingGetting it seen is another.Good work will be recognised when the right audience sees it
Beck made his drawing...it got rejected. He tried again and it was published to shut him up...but here was a formal process to publication and acceptance1933:Trial print run of Beck’s pocket Underground mapUnderground management unsure of public reaction to revolutionary changeNote on front cover invited people to send their comments to the Publicity Manager.When the Beck map was published, the public embraced it. 500 prints first run, then 2nd and 3rd edition in 1933
Now it’s easy because of the internet...publish anything, frequently.Self promotion is rife...and maps that go viral are often considered to be the equivalent of ‘success’Bruno Imbrizi - ExperimentThere is very little critique of such work....because it can be constructed and published rapidly it often is.It doesn’t equate to being good work just because you can reach a massive audience online...though clearly the opportunity to publicise good work has never been greater.
Most people haven’t seen this – it’s mineBreckenridge ski resort
Beck probably hadn’t travelled much or seen many maps other than those that might have influenced him locally.His geography was the one he knew in his local environment. He was a product of his local geography and wanted to be able to navigate it more clearly.He mapped what he knew albeit that he dispensed with geography in the map itself.
Today, we live in a digital world where we have instant access to an almost infinite number and type of map and data and we can make a map of anywhere...So with all this amazing material at our disposal we’d likely suggest it’s sheer laziness that so many maps go straight for the Beck approach.Put simply...look around...there’s a wealth of good cartography and different maps out there.Don’t copy one, steal from many!
The world is a much smaller place than when Beck made his map.The problem with the world being a small place is it’s full of map-makers with niche interests....but when it comes to the tube map everyone likes it, the chances of it’s use and re-use are high, everyone will share them; the same opinions will form and true innovation is less likely as a result.
Most people like this poster for the Tate galleryTate Gallery by Tube, David Booth of Fine White Line, 1987
Most people don’t like thisFrancisco Dans...purely as a piece of abstract curvature and an artistic commentary on the regularity of the map.Note the square logoOpinions become polarised in a shared, online space and our disembodied blogs and tweets are often knee-jerk responses to the latest example of “Becksploitation”Opinions of Beck’s map and derivatives are reinforced...there becomes a tipping point (e.g. Every day, a new version) and it becomes harder to summon the energy to explore the rare great example.
Beck wasn’t some drug crazed arty type...by all accounts he was a pretty boring guy!But his interests in engineering, while boring to some led to creativity...proving you can get creativity out of anythingYet being boring is exactly what many are doing in taking his ideas and using them. Are we bereft of ideas and other influences?
Undergroans...perhaps the most boring version?
Beck applied some of the basic rules of cartographic communication to perfection...he simplified, omitted and generalised to perfection.His creativity was in large part due to the subtraction of all superflous geographiesHe subtracted geography from his map.
What cartographers choose to leave out is often the most important component of a great map...Beck did it perfectly but it doesn’t always work...River Thames removed in 2009 caused uproar.
The Mayor of London, Boris Johnsonordered the map to be re-drawn with the Thames reinstated.
But as the removal of The Thames proves, there’s actually very little left to subtract from the map.If you take Beck as a starting point then you’re starting with something great that you then take things away from...are the changes improvements?Start with a blank page, not someone else’s map may lead to something even greater....though you may get a cheap laugh.
The result of this little rant is really to kick off a movement against bad theft of a great map...We’re not the first people to come up with this idea but we want to apply it to our domain of expertise to reduce “Becksploitation”
Pablo Picasso: “Good artists copy, great artists steal”
And here’s how to steal like a cartographer
Steve Jobs"we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas“
Where do map-makers get their ideas from? The honest cartographer will usually answer, “I stole it.”Nothing is entirely original and everything we create is a function of a genealogy of ideas, experiences, influences.Cartographers collect and take design cues from many works to create new maps.
Beck was a great artist who stole ideas and reworked them brilliantly with a touch of magic.Most of the subsequent Beck inspired maps are not much more than copies; poor fakes that have little imagination; they neither improve upon the original or offer much originalityWe like them momentarily but we soon move on to something else.Beck’s map has longeivity; it’s a design classic. Most of the rest are transient and fail to hold our interest. They drop off our radar rapidly.In early 2013, Beck was honoured with an English Heritage Blue plaque....these are reserved for people of note.
We suggest as a community it’s time to honour Beck ourselves by bringing to a halt the flagrant abuse of his iconic map.We made our own pastiche. The final word in tube mapsEnd of the Line: a tube map of tube maps to end all tube maps
Finally...just a last ironic point to make...we stole the basic premise of this presentation from Austin Kleon. Or maybe we simply copied it?
Beck to the Future: End of the Line
Greenville, South Carolina