When one thinks of a map depicting London, generally the image that appears is that of the map designed by Henry (Harry) Beck (1902 – 1974).
It has become a design icon despite the fact that it eschews topography (other than the River Thames) and focuses on the simplified depiction of the topology of the Underground rail network. Beck’s map, designed in 1931, and first made available to London commuters in 1933, has become the image of the geography of London and, generally, the mental map that defines how London ‘works’.
Station names have become synonymous with the above-ground landscape and the network is such that most of London’s landmarks can be readily located through the map. Navigating between them is a simple process and while the city above is a socio-economic and cultural soup, the simplicity of the map brings a sense of order, structure and sensibility. It is a perfect counterpoint to the chaos at street level.
In cartographic terms, Beck’s map works and marries form with function perfectly. It retains the status of ‘the’ map of London and manages to simplify the
network, be harmonious, coherent, balanced and all with minimal topographic distortion. The symbols are clear and well crafted; the composition and layout, though somewhat challenged by network changes since 1933, remains useful; and the design has remained relatively unchanged over the last 80 years which creates stability in appearance and breeds confidence in its use.
However, in our recently published paper, William Cartwright and I assert that Beck’s map is over-used in myriad ways beyond the
reason for its invention. The effect of such abuse has perhaps been to dilute its own place in cartographic history.
There have been many official iterations that have not always successfully married Beck’s design ideas with network changes; other metro maps have often tried to imitate but with mediocre success; and the map is perpetually used as a template for mimics and alternatives.
The map has become a model for parody which we assert is bad for the map and bad for cartography. We've even created an ironic tube map of tube maps that acts as a monument to all of the maps we've found - over 220 of them. It's called End of the Line and you can view the full web map here or explore an embedded version below.
You can view the published paper here (charges apply if you're not a subscriber to the Journal)
Or, you can download the FREE pre-print version of the paper here