Mapping the way
Simple name : Fact sheet
Collection : Information
Reference number : 2008/1882


A public transport system is of little use to its passengers if they cannot find their way around the network. Information needs to be communicated clearly, using graphics that are easily recognised and quickly understood by the travelling public. Some experiments have been more successful than others, but it is London's diagrammatic Underground map, first devised in 1931 by Harry Beck, which can truly be described as a 'design classic'. It has been used as a model by other urban transport systems worldwide. Today, the size and complexity of London's integrated network means that maps have become indispensable. Every year, over 12 million maps are printed and distributed free by Transport for London (formerly London Transport or LT), and also appear in pocket diaries and guide books. Indeed, around the world, London's Underground map stands as an icon for the capital itself.

Mapping the way underground

London's first public transport maps were produced by the Metropolitan and Metropolitan District Railways, which were established in the 1860s and 1870s respectively. These maps showed times of services, connections with horse buses and even places of interest. They were geographic, showing where passengers were in relation to the streets above. As the Underground expanded with the opening of new tube lines during the 1890s and 1900s, maps had to include more information. In 1908, London's various underground railways produced a single map to publicise their operations as part of an integrated system. This standard map, produced as a poster and a pocket map, served as a guide to the Underground and enabled people to find their way around London. However, the map and its successors, which were produced by the Underground Group of companies, were not ideal. Attempts to include the extremities of each line resulted in a very crowded central area, making the map difficult to read.

Harry Beck's map - a design classic

Harry Beck, a temporary draughtsman working for the Underground, presented the solution in 1931. In his spare time, he designed a radically new map of the network, inspired by an electric circuit diagram. The dense central area was enlarged in relation to the outlying areas, allowing both to be shown more clearly. The map dispensed with conventional geographical accuracy, aiming to enable passengers to understand the network quickly and simply. It used only horizontal, vertical and 45º lines, and the Underground lines were represented by different colours. Beck's idea was initially rejected by the Underground's publicity department for being too revolutionary. Beck made some alterations, in particular making station names more prominent and replacing circular 'blobs', representing stations, with the now familiar rectangular 'ticks'. After Beck put forward his proposal again, a version was produced as a trial pocket map in 1933. It was an immediate success with the travelling public, and new pocket editions and posters were soon published.


Since its introduction, Beck's design classic has undergone, and withstood, numerous modifications. For 28 years, Beck experimented with new versions of the map, accommodating suggestions from both the public and LT. Amongst the earliest changes was the introduction of a ring as the symbol for an interchange station. In 1935, the red and orange Bakerloo and Central lines, which were difficult to tell apart under artificial light, were altered to brown and red. In the early 1940s, although no longer working for LT, Beck continued to revise the map in his own time. Experiments with 60° diagonals were not successful and he reverted to the original 45° system. Beck regarded the 1950 map as his finest. It is notable for showing the Circle line for the first time as a separate line, and for representing interchanges as open circles joined by white lines. In 1960, Beck ended his association with LT. The London Underground map is internationally recognised as an example of graphic and information design excellence. Many other urban railways including New York, Sydney and Leningrad, have 'borrowed' Beck's concept for their own maps. Beck actually produced a proposal for the Paris Metro, which was not used, although the eventual map incorporated elements of Beck's design for the London version.

The current map

During the 1960s and 70s, the map had to be modified to incorporate several new extensions, most notably to Heathrow Airport, and two new lines; the Victoria and Jubilee. The current map is known as the 'Journey Planner' and includes the Docklands Light Railway and several BritRail lines. It could be argued that the simple clarity of Beck's classic map is being compromised to include as much information as possible. Nevertheless, that so many additions have been successfully made says much for the versatility of Beck's original design.

Problems above ground

Unlike Beck's Underground map, an ideal way of mapping services above ground has not been found. Bus routes are flexible and subject to many changes, and services can be dense, with many bus routes using the same stretch of road. Maps have to be essentially geographic in order to show destinations and connections, and cover a large area. While bus routes are densely concentrated in the centre of London, services also stretch out far into suburbia. Even local maps need to include a great deal of detailed information. Any map incorporating such a complex range of information can be difficult to read, and it would be impossible to show every one of London's 17 000 bus stops on a bus map, compared with the 273 stations clearly marked on the Underground map.

Early bus maps

In the nineteenth century, there were a large number of horse bus operators, some working individual routes. Information about the route was displayed on the side of the bus. Some operators published their own timetables and details of routes. In 1911, London's first bus maps were printed by the largest bus operator, the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC), which produced the maps in response to the rapid increase of the new motor bus services. As the LGOC's operations expanded during the 1920s, not least because it was part of the 'Combine' of Underground, bus and tram operators, so the maps' design constantly changed and the designers strove, often unsuccessfully, to make them easy to read.

Trams and trolleybuses

It was easier to design maps for the electric tram and, later on, trolleybus services than for the buses. Since there was a degree of cooperation between operators, the tramways constituted a 'system' from their earliest days; each of the main operators produced their own maps, often showing each other's routes. Trams and trolleybuses ran on fixed routes and so were not subject to the same route alterations as buses. However, the tram system was denser than that of the Underground, and had a larger number of connections between routes.


The bus maps of the 1930s tended to be diagrammatic in design. They were influenced by, at least in part, the success of Beck's map and the fact that, in 1933, all Underground, bus, tram and trolleybus services were unified under the London Passenger Transport Board (which became known as London Transport). The need to provide route numbers and street names added to the confusion. Various designers, such as Fred Elston and W R Mansfield, experimented with colours, scale and size, in an effort to present passengers with a comprehensive but accessible map. In 1949, Ben Lewis's geographical map attempted to reduce the visual congestion by placing the central services in an inset box on the reverse. The inset continues to be used today.

The bus map today

From 1962, when the last trolleybuses were withdrawn, only bus routes needed to be shown. In the late 1970s, LT reassessed the design of the bus map and, in 1981, a new London-wide map was produced. It was geographically accurate, and focused on showing clearly points of interchange and listing route numbers in white circles. Some routes were colour-coded. Today's version of the bus map allows a large part of London's outer areas to be shown. Ninety percent of bus journeys are made in suburban areas, so London Buses produces a great number of local guides. These are able to show more detail, including individual bus stops and complicated interchanges. Local maps can be changed more frequently to incorporate alterations to services. Over 3.5 million of these maps have been distributed to households around London.

Map production

The technology of map production has changed enormously. The earliest maps were drawn as a black outline on a board, in the manner of artwork, with alterations literally stuck over the original. A photographic negative of this was then made, with each colour requiring separate negatives to produce a coloured map. New techniques were developed in the 1950s and 60s. Earlier on, printers overlaid separate transparencies for each colour; then a new ' four colour' process was introduced (mixing four basic colours - red, yellow, blue and black), increasing definition by printing each colour as tiny dots. Since the late 1980s, the process has been digitised and all maps are now produced electronically.

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