Life and Times of the London Underground Map Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Life and Times of the London Underground Map

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A colourful design representing the different lines on the London Underground.

The London Underground map is a classic 20th-Century design and has a great history of its own. It was devised in the 1930s and yet is still used today with few modifications. Harry Beck, the designer of the map in 1933, was only paid five guineas for his original job. The only official acknowledgment he received is a plaque at a Finchley station. The poor man worked on it throughout his life, trying to improve and modify it, and that's all the thanks he got... a plaque at Finchley Central Station.

His map was originally rejected by the powers that be at London Transport1, mainly because it was not geographical. Indeed he enlarged the central areas and compressed the outer areas to make the whole complex map clearer. The map proved to be a great hit with the public, and most other major cities (including New York, St Petersburg and Sydney) used his map as the basis for their own underground maps.

How Helpful Is it?

Despite the above, the map is often reviled as it bears very little geographical relationship to where the stations are and even less geographical information on how far apart stations are.

As Bill Bryson pointed out in his book, Notes From a Small Island, an out-of-town visitor using Mr Beck's map to get from, say, Bank Station to Mansion House, would quite understandably 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.

However, someone on the Internet has kindly devised a real geographical tube map to go some way to avoiding the above situation. That site also includes a map showing distances between stations, to try to stop the many tourists getting on at Covent Garden and travelling one stop to Leicester Square. This is only 0.16 miles by foot and is indeed the shortest distance between two stations on the whole network (if you don't count the Docklands Light Railway)2.

One is also not sure of its usefulness when trying to beat the world record for travelling around the entire London Underground system in a single day. The record for travelling to each one of 270 stations is 16 hours, 44 minutes and 16 seconds. This was set by Andi James, Martin Hazel and Sara Wearn on 14 December, 2009.

Someone has actually devised 'The Way Out' tube map which is a pretty useful invention, since it shows where the nearest exits are when you reach a station, allowing you to shave valuable time (possibly whole minutes) off your journey.

The Tube Map as Art

The London Underground map has also been the subject of a piece of art in the somewhat controversial 1997 Royal Academy Sensation exhibition. Put simply The Great Bear by Simon Patterson takes the tube map but changes the names of stations to artists, footballers, newsreaders, comedians, philosophers, saints, etc.

The map suddenly seemed to offer the opportunity to travel the famous names of history and popular culture, passing a succession of comedians on the way to a philosopher. Patterson uses familiar systems for the classification and the ordering of information and undermines their authority by imposing new yet similarly familiar information. He has used the forms of maps, typewriters, circuits, slide-rules, air traffic route plans and constellation diagrams. They become metaphors for the connectedness of things, they suggest new relationships between them, parallel readings, other ways of configuring the data which govern our lives
- British Council.

The map is such a design icon that it has also formed the basis of many posters (mainly commissioned by London Transport), clothing, towels, washbags and a variety of other items.

Ian McLaren was a former student of Harry Beck and pondered on what Mr Beck might have thought if he were alive today and could see all the tourist goods that have sprung from his map.

The diagram is reproduced over 60 million times each year by companies other than London Transport... It is doubtful whether Beck ever imagined that his design would become such an icon of London; or that he would have expected such a dry subject as a public transport route diagram to be the basis of so many witty and commercially successful souvenir products and poster images.
Given the sense of sheer fun which his design has engendered, and the degree of affection and international respect for it; I cannot believe that despite the vicissitudes of his relationship with London Transport, he would today resent that his ideas have created the means to help preserve the design heritage of London. So on balance, to misquote Queen Victoria; yes, I am inclined to believe that Harry Beck would 'have been amused'.

If anyone has seen the map adorning particularly strange items, it would be great to start a discussion here.

The London Underground Font

A discussion of the map is not really complete without a nodding reference to the famous London Underground font and indeed the London Underground logo itself.

We have a man called Frank Pick to credit for both of these. Frank Pick was Chief Executive of London Transport between 1913 and 1938. He had a great interest in visual arts and commissioned both the London Underground font and the famous logo. He said:

The test of the goodness of a thing is its fitness for use. If it fails on this first test, no amount of ornamentation or finish will make it any better; it will only make it more expensive, more foolish.
- From a lecture made by Frank Pick to the Edinburgh branch of the Design and Industries Association in 1916

Wise words indeed, as the font is still in wide use by designers and the London Underground logo is almost a symbol of London itself.

So, following his words above, the font had to be modern yet easy to read. The sign representing the Underground (or roundel, as it's widely known) needed to be inconspicuous, yet recognisable. Something that would signify a station entrance or interchange among the thousands of distractions Londoners face on a daily basis.

Pick asked the calligrapher, Edward Johnston, to design the font in 1915. In 1916 after collaboration with Eric Gill (he of Gill Sans font fame), the Johnston Sans Serif font was produced. A few minor modifications later and we have the Johnston Underground Font which is still used on all London Underground maps, stations, posters and materials today. The New Johnston Underground font can be downloaded, too. Great for London Underground-themed parties and the like!

1Now known as 'Transport for London' and the organisation that runs the London Underground.2From 50 fascinating facts about the London Underground.

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