The Harry Beck Day Thread

In the early 1930s, the map of the London Underground was a bit of a mess. In the middle of the city, lines crisscrossed haphazardly, making it difficult to tell how to to get where you where going, while outlying suburbs were truncated entirely to fit in the central sections. With the system continuing to grow and expand, the map was rapidly becoming more and more difficult to use for commuters.

London Underground map, circa 1932.

Enter Harry Beck, an engineering draftsman based in London. In 1931, while unemployed and looking for freelance work, Beck sketched a new version of the map inspired by his work for the London Underground Signals Office, which replaced London’s messy geography with a clean schematic-like design, full of of straight lines and 45-degree angles. The design emphasized how the lines of the Underground connected to one another, rather trying to exactly represent where each station was in the city.

Initially, the Underground was reluctant to accept Beck’s design, but in 1933 they decided to give it a trial run, and it turned out to be an instant hit with commuters. Within a few years, it had become the dominant map design used on the system. For his design, Beck was paid the princely sum of five guineas – the equivalent of £357.20 today.

1933 Tube map, with Beck credited on the lower left.

It didn’t take long for the elegant simplicity of Beck’s design to spread beyond London, appearing in use as far away as Sydney, Australia by 1939. Beck’s design forms the basis of the majority of the world’s rapid transit maps today, favouring his clean readable lines over the confusing reality of urban geography.

Even a subway map as complex as Seoul’s can clearly trace its ancestry back to Harry Beck.

Sadly, despite his impressive contribution to the history of design, Beck was not well-known in his lifetime. While he continued to iterate on his design of the Tube map after initially creating it, he had no control over the copyright and eventually had falling out with London Transport in 1959 over conflicting visions for the map. By the time he passed away in 1974, his name had essentially vanished from the history of the Underground.

Thankfully, his work was eventually rediscovered in the 1990s, and is now formally recognized by Transport for London. A historic plaque was erected in 2013 at his birthplace that recognizes his iconic design and his contributions to making the world a little bit easier to get around.