Design Classic – Influential and important design

London Underground Map

Design Icon

The London Underground is the world’s oldest subway; most people know it colloquially as the Tube. An engineering marvel and as almost as famous is the map. The Tube map is instantly recognisable all over the world. It is a simple and elegant diagram of the 400-kilometre subway network. It is considered by many as one of the great images of the 20th century. It consists of a rainbow pallet, clean angles and a pleasing, if slightly old-fashioned, typeface. It is a graphic design icon.

Designed by Harry Beck

Harry Beck designed the map in the 1930s, and it first appeared in 1933. Only 500 copies were printed as a trial run. It was an immediate success. Beck was paid five guineas for his design. Since then, millions have been printed. The map is as much a worldwide symbol of London as Big Ben and the Beefeaters. Since the 1930s, there have been steady improvements; however, the map is still primarily the same as when it was designed almost 74 years ago.

A woman holding a map of London’s underground map given with the Oyster card of the lines of the metros for public transport.

Beck’s relations with London Transport had always been informal. He had tried to exert some form of copyright during his life but was told that this could not be done. Ironically, under modern copyright laws, he would have had the right to forbid amendments to the map.

Beck worked on creating the map in his spare time and completed the challenge within days. It is an innovative “lattice of lateral lines and notches provoking remarkably little hostility”. The only change back made of his own volition for the rest of his career was to alter the use of the diamonds to earmark key stations and replace them with the circles of today. Even his choice of colours for the various lines has remained unchallenged.

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