London Underground Map Myths

The diagrammatic map was invented in Britain, and these design principlesspread from here to the rest of the world

Researching into the history of railway maps is extremely difficult. Work and records have been archived sporadically if at all, and many maps, hidden in pamphlets or timetables, are buried in people's desk drawers, if they have survived at all. On the continent the situation is even worse, with the Second World War undoubtedly leading to much material being lost forever. So, before we celebrate our gift bestowed upon the transport world, perhaps we should show some caution.

There are two points to note here. On the one hand, British graphic design, especially in advertising, generally lagged behind modern techniques that were being developed on the continent during the 1920s and 30s. On the other hand, I have argued elsewhere that the London Underground network was well suited to geographical distortion and diagrammatic mapping. These give us some clues as to where to look for innovation.

First, here is a Belgian poster from 1928:

Continental graphic designers knew perfectly well how to give the impression of speed and convenience, get rid of the curves and use straight lines (also colour coded note). They didn't need any help from the British for this! Now, off to Berlin in 1931:

Perhaps not the most attractive map in the world, but it is again diagrammatic, and issued before the publication of Henry Beck's map. Why Berlin? Again it helps to know a bit of history. The Berlin S-Bahn network was undergoing a massive rebuilding and electrification program, and a map such as this in the modern style would have complemented the new trains and modernist architecture well. It is possible to identify instances where Beck's work has had a direct influence overseas, but designs such as those shown here mean that we should not rule out convergent evolution for the basic design principles.

Last updated 22/08/07