Friday, March 03, 2006

Harry Beck mapped way for millions

....and all for five guineas

IT has just been chosen one of the three top British designs since 1900, in a contest at the Design Museum. That puts it with the World War II Spitfire fighter credited with winning the Battle of Britain, and Anglo-French Concorde.

Unlike the other two it is still in use, and cheap, too. The designer got just five Guineas, and you can pick up the latest version free at any London tube station.

It was in 1931, during the great Depression. Harry Beck was an out-of-work engineering draughtsman. He had been a temporary worker in the London Transport Signal Engineer's office for about six years, but had recently been dismissed in a cost-cutting exercise.

It occurred to Harry that the trouble with the existing maps of the Underground system was they were too accurate, and therefore too complicated, for travellers to get the information they needed quickly. Harry thought about the circuit diagrams he was used to working with. He came up with a new idea, turned the map into a representational diagram, constructed only of vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines, with no surface detail except a stylised River Thames and, crucially, compression of the distances in outlying routes. He produced a presentation showing of his idea.

Work built up again in the drawing office, and he went back onto the LT staff. When he showed his visual to his drawing office colleagues, they encouraged him to submit it to the publicity department, who promptly rejected it as "too revolutionary" Beck was not dissuaded, however, and sent it back to them a year later. The Publicity Manager changed his mind, and decided to order 750,000 copies of a pocket edition, to be given away free.

The travelling public soon realised that its designer, an ordinary tube-travelling commuter just like them, was concerned for the user's information needs and not novelty for its own sake. Its clean lines and bright colours were also easy on the eye, making a classic design that has proved a model of the functional being aesthetic.

Over the years the tube system has been expanded, and the map altered, but its principal remains the same. It is not topographical but topological.

Some visitors to London, including writer Bill Bryson (Notes from a Small Island), have complained that the tube map's distortion may give out of town visitors a confusing idea of distances between places above ground. Someone trying to get from, say, Bank Station to Mansion House, might board a Central Line train to Liverpool Street, transfer to the Circle line and continue for another five stops to Mansion House. At which point they would emerge 200 yards down the street from the location they'd started at.

Having watched bewildered commuters blinking at the daylight (what are those big red things on wheels?) when forced up by problems at Stockwell on the Underground, I have to admit American tourists aren't the only ones who have difficulties. But seeing cartographically challenged Londoners struggling to master the tube map, tracing lines with fingers, I hate to think what would happen if they faced an Underground equivalent of an OS map. Someone on the Internet has kindly devised a real geographical tube map to help, but your best bet is still to use a street map, and not try as I've seen some visitors do to find their way above ground using the free tube map!

Meanwhile, the London tube map example has been followed by other underground systems from New York to Sydney and Leningrad, and the map itself has become a familiar London tourist icon, inspiring artists and poster designers, as well as appearing on mugs, tee shirts and tea towels. The diagram is reproduced over 60 million times each year by companies other than London Underground.

Harry Beck was only paid five guineas for his original job. He worked throughout his life trying to modify and improve the map. The only official acknowledgment he received is a plaque at Finchley Station. Until now.



Post a Comment

<< Home