The Diagram

In which we study some design history


I’ve recently been reading a book about design history, about the design of an icon. Mr Beck’s Underground Map, by Ken Garland. It is, as you might imagine, about the London Underground Map, concentrating on the period from the 1930s to the 1950s when it was designed by Harry Beck. In many ways it’s a sad story – Beck, throughout his life, felt that he had paternalistic rights over his map;* London Transport disagreed, treating the map as its own property. Which, of course, it was. In the 1960s, when London Transport turned to alternative designers, he became obsessed with producing his own versions, in the hope that London Transport would take his design up again.

Nowadays, Beck is always remembered as the map’s creator; his map was the first in Britain to abstract the network and present it topologically. The modern map, though, isn’t really based on his. It’s based on one of its 1960s successors, by Paul Garbutt; it was Garbutt’s first design that settled on black-and-white interchange symbols, and the modern proportions of the lines.

Design archaeology is hard, sometimes. There aren’t any old underground maps on display at stations, because they’re all outdated. Sometimes, though, you can spot things still lurking from days past. Some of the Phase One Victoria Line stations still have signs unchanged since they opened, in the days of the first Garbutt map. The northbound platform at Green Park, for example, has what looks like an original line diagram on the wall: it has a dotted-circle for National Rail interchanges, a characteristic of that time;** and Highbury and Islington is shown as a Northern Line interchange. It’s interesting to see. There aren’t any Beck-era signs anywhere on the underground, as far as I know, which is something of a shame; but it’s good that there are still examples of old designs surviving. It’s good to have history around us.

* or “The Diagram” as the book calls it throughout.

** The modern double-arrow “main line railway” symbol was introduced in 1964, off the top of my head, but didn’t become widespread for a few years

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