Harry Beck revolutionised the map of London’s Underground.
Harry Beck designed the London Underground map, and inspired similar maps used all over the world. He took something complex and made it simple and understandable. Is this not the essence of good technical communication?
By Richard Truscott
Figure 1: Harry Beck in front of a 1958 version of the map. In his hands, he is holding his original sketch.
© 1965 photograph by Ken Garland
Strictly speaking, Harry’s design is a diagram, not a map, but as the London Underground refers to it as a map, I have used this term throughout this article.
Henry Charles Beck was born at Leyton, London, in 1902 and died at Southampton in 1974. Harry trained as an artist and sculptor but found it difficult to find work as a commercial artist. Instead, he joined the Signal Engineers department of the London Underground.
Harry's Big Idea
Harry lived in London’s Highgate and was a regular user of the Underground. He found the maps of the Underground unsatisfactory.
"Looking at an old map of the Underground railways”, he said, “it occurred to me that it might be possible to tidy it up by straightening the lines, experimenting with diagonals and evening out the distance between stations.”
77 years later, the map we see today is very similar to the original design (on the right of Figure 2).
In 1931, while working as a contract draftsman for London Underground, Beck designed the map as a personal project. He offered it to London Underground’s Board who rejected his idea. He tried again in 1932 and this time the Board agreed to a trial of a pocket map. The trial took place in 1933 and won huge public acclaim.
Beck received 10 guineas (£522 in modern terms) for the pocket map. He then went on to produce a poster for which he received five guineas (£266).
It is unclear where Beck’s idea came from; certainly, one influence was the style of electrical circuit diagrams. He may also have been influenced by another draughtsman, F.H. Stingemore, who preceded him in producing a geographical map that used different scales for the central and suburban areas but retained the direction of the lines and the distances between stations (on the left of Figure 2).
Figure 2: Geographic and Schematic maps. © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection. Left image: F.H. Stingemore, right image: H.C. Beck
Why the map works well
The key to the success of the map is that it:
is an abstraction, only showing information strictly necessary for navigating London’s Underground. Stripped of geographical information, the only feature that remains is the river Thames. Removing the geographical information gives plenty of space for station names and interchanges.
reduces the complexity of the network by distorting, but not destroying direction and distance. The traveller maintains a sense of direction because Watford appears as North West of the centre and Morden is South West. Stations are spaced evenly along the lines allowing for a clear un-crowded look even though some stations in the central area are only a few hundred metres apart and suburban stations a kilometre or more apart.
makes the crowded central areas take up more space than the suburbs. It is the central areas that need clarity because it is where most passengers change trains.
Problems start to arise
Beck was to find out the truth of Samuel Goldwyn’s quip that “A verbal agreement is not worth the paper it’s written on.”
At some time, Beck signed over the copyright of the map to London Underground. However, he thought he had an agreement that he was the design authority and had control of future changes to the map.
This ad-hoc agreement worked well for a few years until a slightly modified design appeared in 1938. Beck took issue with London Underground which he thought had accepted his design authority. The legend ‘H.C. Beck’ appeared on the seven versions of the map he produced until the last in 1958.
This new version of the map, designed by London Underground’s Publicity Officer, Harold F. Hutchinson, was produced in 1960 (on left of Figure 3). It was very different from Beck’s; there were no curves and more diagonals.
A battle of letters then started between Beck and London Underground. Beck claimed that he owned the right to change the design by the agreement made with London Underground when he signed over the copyright. London Underground denied Beck’s claim. The letters became more strident and threatening and Beck even hinted that he was going to court over the matter; however, he never did take that step.
The Hutchinson design was not a public success as its ‘jerky’ look was hard to follow (Figure 3 left).
Figure 3: Comparison of the Hutchinson (left) and Garbutt (right) versions of the map.
© TfL from the London Underground Transport Museum collection
Another London Underground employee, Paul E. Garbutt (he was Assistant Secretary and New Works Officer) realising the Hutchinson map was unsatisfactory, in 1964, designed a new version in his spare time, reinstating many of Becks original ideas (on the right in Figure 3). Garbutt put back the curves and straightened and smoothed the lines. Meanwhile Beck was still sending London Underground unsolicited designs that allowed for changes to the network such as the Victoria line. Garbutt produced four versions up to 1972. The designer’s name does not appear after this date.
Modern versions of the Underground map now attribute the design to Beck with the words: This diagram is an evolution of the original design conceived in 1931 by Harry Beck.
Standing the test of time
Harry Beck and London Underground were the first to produce this type of map. It is an idea that many other transport organisations such as the New York Subway, Paris Metro and Madrid Metro, use to show their network. The map certainly has stood the test of time. It is still in use, and in a form that Harry Beck would recognise. The design has accommodated new lines without major change (Jubilee and Victoria). In addition, it has been adapted for modern uses to show disability and bike access and other things by producing single-purpose variants. New versions showing all of London’s transport links and fare zones follow the original design.
Examples of using a map
Somerset County councilhave created an imaginative tourist map based on the Beck model (see Figure 4)
Figure 4: Somerset Tourist Map
The idea of using a map could be applied to a trouble-shooting guide (see Figure 5).
Figure 5: Example of a map as a trouble shooting guide
I admire Beck’s design because it conveys complex information in a simple and clear way. I also admire Beck’s determination and dedication to his idea – many others would have given up after being rejected.
Ken Garland tells how Beck filled his house with drafts of maps for London and other cities (Paris, for example) and how he was constantly re-thinking his ideas.
Having been born and grown up in the London suburbs, the underground map has always been around. I had given the map very little thought.
The underground map has sparked many imaginations, for example, art works such as Simon Pattison’s ‘Great Bear’ (an underground map with station names replaced by artists, scientists and writers), and The Bike Station’s Innertubecycling map of Edinburgh. Maybe it will spark your imagination too.
In finding out more about the map and its designer, I found Harry Beck’s life and work interesting and hope that you enjoyed reading my article.
Ken Garland for his useful comments and permission to reproduce free of charge the portrait of Harry Beck.
This article was originally published in ISTC's Communicator journal, Summer 2011. It was then published in Southern Communicator in 2012. You can access the original Southern Communicator article if you'd like to explore the references.