London tube map

tube map

Materials: Printed card
Dimensions: 20 centimeters high
Place acquired: family possession
Place of manufacture:  London, 1933

I don’t know which member of my family was visiting London in 1933, or why they picked up a tube map and marked Paddington Station and Edgware Road with a blunt pencil. But I’m glad they did because seventy-five years later I was thrilled to find this rare first edition amongst a pile of my mother’s papers.

1933 was the year that an engineering draughtsman called Harry Beck, working on a temporary contract for the London Underground, finally managed to persuade his sceptical employers to trial a new tube map that he had been working on in his spare time. This is the same year that the Bauhaus, the famous German art school, was forced to close by the new Nazi government, starting an exodus of avant-garde designers and architects to Britain and America.

But it’s a fair guess that Harry Beck was unaware of the Bauhaus, or certainly his design idea was not inspired by a european avant-garde of any sort. Maybe it was the electrical circuit diagrams he was familiar with that gave him the inspiration for a schematic diagram to replace the confusing maps of London’s Underground system. Whichever way it came about, in January 1933 London’s travelling public were able to pick up for free a new diagram of the tube which ignored precise geography, distance, or surface detail, and concentrated on what an underground passenger really needed to know – the sequence of stations, the difference between lines, and the connections between them.

The map has a nervous disclaimer printed on the front flap:

A new design for an old map.
We should welcome your
comments. Please write to
55 Broadway, Westminster, SW1.

The managers of London Underground need not have worried. Beck’s diagram went on to become one of the most successful and respected examples of modern information design. There are two famous aphorisms that are often used to sum up modernist design, ‘Form follows function’ and ‘Less is more’. They could almost have been coined to describe this diagram, now regarded as a classic of modernist graphic design. 

The middle decades of the 20th century were the high water mark of modernism, and clear, minimalist graphic design is arguably one of its lasting legacies. Much information design still embodies modernist principles and diagrams are a part of our daily lives. Graphic boxes, lines, nodes, arrows and colour coding are universally understood ways of visualising and organising our world. Designs like Harry Beck’s tube map were very important in making us familiar and comfortable with this new visual vocabulary of modernity.