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The London Underground and its legacy: The people behind its success

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In 1932 an electrical engineer named Henry Charles Beck, more commonly known as Harry Beck, bestowed it upon himself to redesign the London Underground map and became one of the pioneers that contributed to the success of The Underground. This critical paper explores the success of the London underground, looking specifically at Harry Beck and his Map design and how it contributed to the legacy of the London Underground. The paper will look at London transport maps pre-1933 and compare them to maps we use today. This will highlight the differences and show how they have changed over time. It will also look at some of the key people involved in the development of the underground and show how their ideas shaped its future. It will look closely at Harry Beck’s influential Underground map design (1933) and show how it changed our view on maps. The brand identity of the London Underground, it’s maps, branding, and signage will also be explored in an attempt to reveal how it was formed and upheld and at the same time focus on the main people who contributed to the ‘look’ of the underground. It will investigate the impact the London underground has had on the rest of the world, not only in transport but also design. The Legacy of the Underground will also be explored, by looking at merchandise, branding and other ways it has impacted not only its future but the future of design.

The London Underground is famous worldwide, it features the line that originally was the first ever underground railway. However, although being the first is enough to make it world famous, it’s not enough to make it successful. Firstly, this critical paper aims to unpick the history of the underground to uncover the key people and their contributions. This will be done by highlighting the prominent changes and decisions that were made and how successful they were. key figures involved in the underground by examining and evaluating their contributions through deconstruction and research. Frank Pick, Johnston, Harry Beck. The paper will look at the heritage of the London underground and the first maps it used with the objective of charting their journey from geographical accuracy, to recognizable design that is not necessarily geographically accurate. This will again make clear the changes that happened over time and how they affected the success of the underground.

This critical paper aims to focus on the London Underground Map (1933) and designer Harry Beck. The objectives are to highlight the London Underground’s image and identify how it changed map design. Harry Beck’s design will be evaluated through analytical deconstruction, whilst paying close attention to the context of the design and audience reception. Which will uncover the harsh criticisms and coldness that Beck encountered whilst trying to revolutionize map design? A key source that will be examined is ‘How To Lie With Maps’ (Monmonier, 1996) which highlights the need for clarity and simplicity in map design, something that Beck understood.

The critical paper aims to show how revolutionary Harry Beck’s design was by revealing its impact worldwide. The objective is to show a history of Beck’s design being used across the world. Show its influence on transport maps today, highlighting the importance of design aspects. Whether Becks design principles have been improved upon.

The critical paper aims to show how successful the underground is today. The objectives to show how the underground as a brand, has impacted popular culture. It will look at the inspired artwork, adaptations, merchandise. Highlight how recognizable it is as a brand.

Charles Tyson Yerkes was an American Financier, who in 1900, created the Underground Electric Railways Company of London as a way of controlling the District Railway. Yerkes wanted to become involved in the development of the London underground railway system and strived to unify it. Though he died in 1905 before any of his works had been completed, his ideas were carried out by his successors when they were brought together on one map. The first combined map for London’s Underground railways began to be issued for passengers in 1906, before this, each line had its own separate map. The next year, the URL, central London, metropolitan, Great Northern & City, and City & South London Railways agreed to create the first all-inclusive map, which would combine lines from their companies. Some of these companies were in a poor financial state and so in 1907, they joined together to create a complete system of underground railways under the name ‘Underground’. As Jackson & Croome (1964, p. 132 cited in Merrill, 2013, p. 247) outline, a new map was designed in 1908 to “educate the public of the network’s growing integration. The map displayed the network almost in its entirety”. This map clearly laid the foundation for future designs, introducing colour for the first time, but it also suffered from trying to replicate the route (making it harder to read than a geometric line) and also distorted the Metropolitan line to make room for the colour key (Garland, 1994, p. 8). Another company, the Waterloo & City, decided not to join the underground, though it’s line featured on several maps between 1908 and 1913. All-inclusive maps made it easier for travelers to navigate the rail routes. However, these first maps were designed to be geographically accurate and although it was easier having multiple routes on one map, there were issues with the clarity, which would become increasingly worse as new lines are added.

Frank Pick was a transport administrator who spent years working with trains. In 1912, he became the Commercial Manager of the Underground Electric railways company of London (UERL) and is celebrated as the main figure, responsible for its strong corporate identity. The pick was very interested in design and aimed to introduce a consistent look to advertising and lettering as he was unhappy with the diverse and endless variety of typefaces used across the system. In 1915, he had the logo redesigned as the heart of a successful corporate identity. 1915, Pick had employed Johnston to design a newly simplified typeface. The Sans Serif exemplified the virtues of modern design. It was clean-lined and efficient-qualities Pick wanted to see imposed on the system as a whole. The pick was very concerned to present the Underground system as rational, scientific, and efficient in its management. One of the ways he tried to do that was through the architecture of the Underground stations. He chose Charles Holden to design the new extension stations, particularly on the Piccadilly and Central Lines. Holden’s approach was to use a kind of architecture which would be understood as rational and modern – a kind of European modernism. He realised or was instructed, that the stations must be recognizable as belonging to the same species. If one saw an Underground station, it should be recognizable as part of the Underground system. clear new typeface to apply to all Underground Group buildings, rolling stock and publications. Johnston’s typeface, (known as Johnston sans) was first used in 1916 and was so successful that it was used up until 1979 when it was slightly reworked and renamed to ‘New Johnston’ to keep it up to date and relevant for the modern age. The Johnston typeface, designed exclusively for the Underground, is a sans-serif font that remains in use today its elegant simplicity taken for granted – as much great design often is. The typefaces success was down to its clarity and adaptability (Sinclair 2016). Johnston is also responsible for the rebrand of the London underground in 1925 when he designed the iconic roundel logo that is still used today. There is a very little record of what Londoners thought of the symbol at first. Journalists did observe that the new signs were part of a massive modernization program on the Underground and appreciated the consistency and coherence that the roundel provided in its role as station sign. (Byrnes)

In 1925 Stingemore designed a new map which removed all surface detail in hopes of improving the clarity. However, this proved to be confusing for commuters and in 1932 the Thames was added back into the design as it created a landmark that helps people visualize where they were a bit easier. This is the design that Beck went on to develop into a diagrammatic map, much the same as we use today.

Harry Beck was an engineer and Underground employee, who charted the way we commute. Under the appointment, Frank Pick, Beck in 1933, devised a diagrammatic map of the London underground system that ignored geographical distances and instead presented an elegant, geometrical structure, which consisted of intertwined straight lines and diamonds that represent interchanges. Beck (cited in Garland, 1994, p.17) comments on how he wanted to simplify the map by using straight lines (including diagonals) and evenly spacing the stops. This was a deliberate design choice for clarity of vision and presentation of information. For more than 50 years the London Underground map was geographic, which led to passengers finding it difficult to navigate. This led to the underground losing Money as the underground system was too complicated to follow. In 1933 Harry Beck created the first abstract underground map. According to Hadlaw (2003), Beck set aside geographic space in favor of graphics space. This was a real breakthrough and abstract maps have since become well recognized for their ability to highlight what’s important whilst removing confusing or irrelevant information. Beck’s original sketch of the Underground effectively eliminated all surface detail, leaving only the Thames recognizable geographical feature (Garland, 1994, p. 16) It could be said that Harry Beck changed the way we see the world with his revolutionary design. Dennis (2008, p.337 cited in Merrill, 2013, p. 248) suggests that Beck’s design was influenced by the modernist art movement, and helped to create an “urban, modernist space”. Beck (cited in Garland, 1994, p.17) explains how his design was initially rejected in 1931 because it was deemed “too revolutionary”. Another design was therefore required. Garland (1994, pp. 18-19) describes how the second design (in 1932) was this time opened up to public scrutiny and their reaction to the map was positive, noting that Beck was a commuter like them, looking to make their lives easier, without commission. He saw that there was a need for change and decided to take the initiative. In July 1933, soon after the launch of Beck’s underground map, the government decided to change the URL into London Transport. This was to be a public corporation that had complete control over public transport in London. London Transport publicly appointed, the London Passenger Transport Board (LTPB) to be accountable for decisions made on its behalf (Hornsey, 2012).

Garland (1994, p. 22) notes “that the diagram had to grapple almost continuously with the growth and development of the system itself”. Harry Beck’s versions of the map were in use until 1960, when Harold Hutchison (Head of Publicity at LT) thought he would design a new map. It was not popular as clarity was sacrificed making it look ugly with sharp angles that only confused passengers further. London Transport’s Assistant Secretary and Works Officer. Paul. E. Garbutt realized there was a problem with the map and in 1963 he decided to redesign it. ‘The problems were largely geometrical ones. You find that you get one corner of the thing right, but you cannot get the next corner right. And you have to make some sort of compromise between the sides of the map. And even a thing like bringing in the Jubilee Line means a considerable recast of the whole map I tried to get in as many straight lines as I could. For example, the Northern Line and the Central Line, through the central area, are straight. I tried in every way to make it easily comprehensible to the passenger.’

He aimed to fix the design and incorporate the positive elements of both Beck and Hutchinson’s maps. His design included black rings for interchanges and lower-case text for non-interchange stations whilst reverting back to the original style of Beck. Garbutt is also responsible for the familiar ‘bottle’ shape of the Circle line. Soon after, Beck worked on a new map design based on that of Garbutt, he wanted to improve the design to incorporate and further promote the Victoria line. However, Degani (2013) explains in his article that ‘London Transport managers were not prepared to receive any contribution from Beck, as there was too much corporate pride resting on the diagram’. This seemed ludicrous as beck had bought so much success to the underground and his designs were still the basis of their maps. In 1964, Beck made another attempt to work on his previous design, but instead based it on a newer version London Transport has developed. This is considered his best and most sophisticated design ever but once again it was rejected and never revealed publicly. (Garland, 1994, p60). In 1965, with limited finances, and a wife suffering from depression due to the prolonged legal disputes with London Transport, Beck gave up the fight. Ironically, more than any of the improvements undertaken by Pick and his successors, Beck’s diagram became the most sustaining image not only of the London Underground but of London itself (Hadlaw, 2003, p31).

Alan Foale is the current designer of the map that is based on Beck’s design. Beck’s map, with its electrical diagram design, is not about geography, but geometry. It seems to be infinitely flexible. New lines appear, stations come and go, but the map remains the same. Beck knew that Tube travelers didn’t need geography, but clarity – what he called “heightened common sense”. You needed to be able to check your interchanges quickly, often in dim light and make instant decisions. The current designers of the Underground receive no public recognition, with the map bearing just “Mayor of London” rather than the designer. In 1997, Beck’s importance was posthumously recognized, and as of 2013 the statement is printed on every Tube map: “This diagram is an evolution of the original design conceived in 1931 by Harry Beck”.

For all his disappointment, though, the current map is clearly a continuation of Beck’s work, and his design principles have had an international impact.

Harry Beck’s map designing wasn’t limited to London, in 1951 he proposed a design for the Paris metro, similar to that of the London underground. Paris did not accept the redesign and kept to their map. (Sinclair, 2009). However, other countries were more open to Beck’s map and many rail services across the world have used Beck’s design rules as a basis for their own maps The First example of this was in 1939 when Sydney’s rail network was depicted in Beck’s style on an identical sized pocket map that even used the roundel design on the cover. New York 1958, Moscow and Osaka: 1970, St Petersburg: 1971, Munich and Tokyo: 1972, Melbourne, Montreal and Glasgow: 1976.

Many of those have used the 45-degree angle and the perpendicular right angles that Beck brought into use in 1933, so his influence has gone around the world. The New Yorkers had a fantastic attempt at this in 1972 when a guy called Massimo Vignelli came up with this idea, which was to use all the Beck principles – 45-degree angles, horizontal and vertical lines for every line, but, strangely, after a few years, the New Yorkers rejected it. New Yorkers couldn’t handle Beck. Paris is a great case – Harry Beck himself came up with his own version of the Metro, and they rejected it. The Paris Metro, before that, the map was really quite messy. The names were printed over the lines, making it difficult to read. In the last couple of years, they’ve come up with this new version, which has used the Beck principles. You have the 45-degree angles, clear markers all the way through. None of the station names clash over the top of the lines and all the lines are horizontal or vertical, and it is a much easier map to use. The most interesting one is what they did in Moscow, where they tried to emphasise the central area, on the edges of town, they’ve used what’s been called “beading” of the stations. They’ve replaced the lines between the stations with dots – people presumably know where they are if they live in the suburbs, but for tourists, this central area has been blown up and it’s clearer to use. That is beautiful. It’s perfectly balanced.

There are now about 160 underground systems around the world and almost all of them use a diagrammatic map, copied or adapted from the London system. The uses of colour coding, clear interchanges and lettering are all now standard practice. It’s used by road, rail and air networks, too. The enduring appeal of the design also allowed it to be applied to other, non-transport contexts…

In 1992 when designer Simon Patterson created ‘the great bear’ a Tube map with every station name changed to a famous name. He talks about how he wanted people to double-take on something familiar. In map men interview, Patterson talks about how when he started making his own version, he unpicked the work and saw how beautifully it had been constructed and the way that it’s infinitely flexible. It’s something that you can remove lines or add lines, it can be extended, but it isn’t a true representation of place – it’s a complete design solution for how to get to A to B, and also in the clearest possible way.

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