London Underground Map Myths

All of Henry Beck's maps can be regarded as outstanding pieces of graphic design

Unfortunately, we can't yet scan a map into a computer, crunch some numbers, and come up with a design score. We can debate the strengths and weaknesses of Beck's designs, and inevitably there will be disagreements. We should also note that Beck was not necessarily in control of his own destiny. Many silly ideas were forced upon him, and then retracted when it became obvious that they were not working. On the other hand, this gives us a potential contradiction. If Beck's designs were not truly his own, he ceases to be the master map designer, and becomes a mere technician, implementing other people's ideas. So, were the bad designs (of those without the silly features) his fault? If not, then he was not the sole designer!

We need to look at Henry Beck's final published design, as this is his most controversial:

Avoiding diagonal lines, and squaring the Circle Line produces a map that, to some, is a minimalist Cubist delight. For others, it is a human factors nightmare, and a blind alley from which lessons were learned, never to be repeated. First, note the excessive stylisation of the map. Diagrammatic maps have to distort geography, but this one goes beyond many people's comfort zone. As just one specific example, Warren Street is to the north-west of Euston Square, which is an interchange that people actually make quite often. This may or may not mislead people, but maps which stray too far from city geography can be difficult for users to relate to, witness the probable repeat of history in Madrid:

New Madrid Metro Map
Letters to The Times
Tubular Hell

Another problem with this map is that the service flow is not obvious from the line junctions. Where does a southbound Metropolitan Line train heading towards Baker Street go? Edgware Road or Great Portland Street (and if service flow does not matter, why is it shown at Kennington)? With similar problems at Acton Town and Earl's Court, the map does not help the user plan a journey.

We should also take a look at some of Beck's unpublished maps (see Ken Garland's book on the links page). After London Transport decided that they no longer required his services, Beck produced two maps incorporating the Victoria Line as a straight line slicing across Central London. Powerful clean images, but unfortunately these were wishful thinking: On the first map (the second was slightly better) the Victoria Line had been drawn at 40 degrees, a long way off from the standard rule of 45 degrees. Far from being clever pieces of graphic design, they would have caused endless problems when redrawing them to get the angles correct.

Beck's first Victoria Line map, as reproduced in Ken Garland's book. I have placed additional lines at 45 degrees to show just how far out Beck's diagonals were. Could this map have been distorted as a result of some aspect of the reproduction process? Probably not, note that the diagonal north of Baker Street is spot on, and note the inset, showing that distortion to diagonals also distorts interchange circles. At the very least, Euston and Kings Cross need to be redrawn, and getting Kings Cross right is a bit tricky (see below)

Last updated 30/11/07