Beck is a four letter word – Underground diagram myths

My own archives indicate that it was in the May 1965 edition of Design that the first edition of Henry Beck’s pocket diagram was described as a ‘graphic design classic’, possibly for the first time (I would welcome a reference to anything earlier). Quite unfairly it is compared to an awful map of twenty years previously and with no regard to historical accuracy states ‘London Transport’s concern to look after its passengers is exemplified in the rationalizing of the early route map’. H.C. Beck’s name is mentioned in brackets, as an aside.

And that is how things were, for many years. The map of the day was just accepted as being there and only in the mid 1960s is it suggested that, in its original form of 1933, it might be a graphic design classic  a very specific kind of accolade. 

The next plug for the Underground map was perhaps an article on the Underground diagram in the January 1967 edition of Railway World, where, again, Beck is scarcely mentioned and the implication of the text is that the whole thing was London Transport’s idea. It was not until the 1969 edition of the Penrose Annual (an annual extemporization of interesting matter about the printing industry) that suddenly Beck was put on the map, so to speak. The annual contained a fascinating article by Ken Garland about the origins of the Underground diagram, lusciously illustrated in full colour to the highest standards of the printing industry. Garland had got to know Beck and was in a good position to set some matters straight (and later expanded the material as a book in its own right). We already knew the map actually pre-dated London Transport, but we were less aware that it was not its predecessor’s idea either.

Ever so slowly, Beck’s name became better known. I think the explosion of interest probably started with London Transport’s golden jubilee celebrations of 1983 where the well-honed publicity machine had to identify all the good things that London Transport could take credit for and make the most of them. They were bad times; it was the middle of the Fares Fair battle, the government’s war against LT’s masters at the GLC and threats of outsourcing, privatization and so on. The Beck map was all part of the artillery that could be brought to bear to indicate how valuable London Transport was. This kind of thing is all meat and drink to a large organization with a long history and on a positive note helps make the staff proud of their organization. I know, I was there.

Somehow, after that, things got out of hand. A lengthy period was then endured when so far as the map was concerned more and more was being said about less and less, much of it ill-informed, speculative and from the worst excesses of the artistic fraternity about whom one sometimes wondered if they had ever seen a train, let alone used the Underground. The map had, I was being told, become an icon. This was a word I had only a rare need to use myself, but now, apparently I found I had a collection of them. Beck’s name, once hardly known, was spoken in hushed reverence around posh dinner tables and not, as previously, merely as a means to help collectors sort or trade maps. I really don’t know how or why all this took off.

On 25th March 2013 the third commemorative plaque was unveiled in honour of Henry Beck, described thereon as the designer of the Underground map. This must surely complete the beatification process.

The latest plaque is provided by English Heritage, who regards itself as the ‘official’ provider of blue plaques, and who presumably has been swept along by the general euphoria accorded to all this, which I have just described. It may be telling that the official arbiter of what constitutes heritage could have done so in years gone by but either chose not to do so, or had never heard of the man. It was left to the Finchley Society to put right a perceived injustice, for it was they who provided one in 2003. The Finchley Society was guarded in its praise. Its plaque reads ‘Harry Beck – Designer of the 1933 London Underground Map – Lived here 1936-60’. This is undeniably true. There is an even earlier plaque at Finchley Central station, about a mile away, erected in 1993. I haven’t yet discovered who put it up and for some reason the plaque doesn’t say. Even Lord Ashfield has so far achieved only one blue plaque and one stone tablet, and he is regarded as ‘the creator of London Transport’!

English Heritage has virtually replicated the Finchley effort, but has made the accolade more sweeping by omitting the year 1933. I’m not sure this omission is helpful. Beck was heavily involved in the designs for 27 years (there were several strikingly different designs), but others have led the process for the last 53 years, with widely varying levels of success, though some were arguably more successful than Beck’s later work. If it be admitted that Beck set out some early rules (though they were not written down) then provided those rules are broadly followed with a wider-than-high layout of customary proportions then one can only end up with a map that looks at first sight like Beck’s. Actually pretty much everything is different on the current map to that of 1933 except the interpretation of implied rules. (By rules I mean things like using horizontal and vertical lines and lines at 45 degree angles, changing angles using curves, ticks for station names and so on). To my mind this was all set out on the 1933 map, and that is where the credit should stay.

What the good fellow would have thought about all this can only be a matter of speculation, he had quite a sense of humour and I suspect would find all this highly amusing, especially given his relationship in later years with London Transport, which was a little strained. What he might have drawn our attention to, and which surely was the focus of all his efforts, is that it is not a map, it is a diagram 
and that is the whole point. Having said that, the word ‘diagram’ would not fit so nicely into the plaque design: perhaps that is why ‘map’ was used.

His full name is rarely seen (it was Henry Charles Beck) but all three plaques use the name Harry, which was apparently that by which he was known to his friends. I know it is not the modern fashion, but it used to be the case that one’s name was the one allocated at birth and that one should be invited personally to use any more familiar name, itself signifying that a degree of friendship exists. It would not therefore be something to use on a plaque in a public place! I am probably an increasingly lone voice on that one, but I am more comfortable with calling him Henry (in the office he was probably just called ‘Beck’ other than to real friends).

I am quite content to leave matters there, but lest anyone might think that I seek to discredit his achievements in any way, let us just consider what he actually did. This is perhaps important for a great deal of utter tosh has appeared. Let us consider what some people imagine he introduced in 1933.

  • First used colours to denote the various lines. Wrong. This was first attempted in 1908 and ceased during the first war owing to printing restrictions. It was reintroduced in 1924 and has been used ever since.
  • Omitted the street plan which was felt to be confusing. Wrong. This was already done on the main pocket maps from 1924.
  • Interchange stations shown differently from ordinary stations. Wrong. This had been done almost from the beginning of Underground maps and was certainly the norm by 1924.
  • No geographical Underground maps were produced on street base after 1933. Wrong. Large paper folded geographical Underground maps were produced in the period 1936-47 and were later emulated by the long-running ‘London’ series of maps. Someone thought there was a need. These were issued in parallel with the diagrammatic map.
So, what did he do?
  • He abandoned any attempt at scale to provide sufficient space for what had to be shown. This had the effect of enlarging the central area and reducing the scale of the outer areas, with the happy by-product of including some additional stations.
  • He straightened out the lines. On the 1933 version this produced horizontal and vertical lines and some at 45 degrees. On later versions, which didn’t endure, a deliberate attempt was made to increase the number of slanted lines, this time at 60 degrees, which I think actually made for a better diagram, but the basic principle was the same.
  • After initially continuing with the ‘blob’ to represent stations, he finally selected a tick mark, which was a bit lighter and has endured.
Good, the first two points, in particular, are important.

The idea of using straight lines rather than any other method was not new in 1933, and even the Underground Group had been doing it for years on line diagrams inside the carriages, with all stations equidistantly spaced. The District Railway had such diagrams as far back as 1908 and such a method of portrayal was by no means unusual by 1915. George Dow was designing something of the kind for the London & North Eastern Railway from 1929. It is perhaps interesting that Beck moved to Finchley in 1930 and could scarcely have missed the LNER diagrams at his local stations. Both West Finchley and Finchley Central were LNER stations (we don’t actually know how he got to work in the days before the Northern Line got to Finchley; if I’d had to do the journey to 55 Broadway I would have got a 40 or 60 tram [soon replaced by trolleybus] to Golders Green and used the tube from there. Nevertheless he must have seen what the LNER was doing).

Similarly, the idea of distorting scale to fit stuff in and show it at its best was far from uncommon. The Metropolitan Railway had used extremely heavy distortion consistently from 1923. They had a far worse problem than the Underground with a lot going on in the central area and a 50-mile long branch striking out north-westwards. The central area is pretty uniform and its 7½-mile breadth occupies over half the map. The northern tube railway branches are also shown in approximate proportion. However, the entire 50-mile route from Baker Street into deepest Buckinghamshire (and branches) is hugely compressed into the surviving space, with curious results. Thus Harrow-on-the-Hill is further south than Camden Town, Watford is well south of Golders Green and Uxbridge is to the east of Hammersmith. The most bizarre thing is that the designer has added principle roads which, as you might imagine from what I have just said, can only be done by changing their trajectories to the point of uselessness! Nevertheless, if one regards it as a diagram and not a map it clearly shows that variable scales can get a designer out of trouble. Actually, even the existing Stingemore map was forced to use some distortion (F.H. Stingemore drew the previous generation of Underground map; though loosely geographical, they were arguably diagrams).

Closer to the Underground Group’s home (for Beck’s map was trialled before London Transport came into being) is its very own bus ‘map’. I have just examined the 1931 ‘map’ and for precisely the same reasons, of denser bus services in the centre, the map uses a variable scale so it all fits in clearly. Across central London, a mile occupies 1.9 inches; centre to inner ‘zone’ a mile occupies 1.5 inches and inner ‘zone’ to suburbs a mile occupies 0.9 inches. The outcome is what looks like a map and appears to have a very even spread of bus services where routes are reasonably clearly shown. Moreover the distortion is sufficiently subtle so as not to be apparent unless one is looking for it. Drawing things to a variable scale is not for the faint-hearted. One can never be sure, but, myself, I would be amazed if Beck didn’t know about this trick prior to attempting it himself.

So, Beck clearly felt that techniques were available that could better portray the Underground map, which perhaps lagged behind what others were doing. This clearly caught his imagination. The real credit he deserves is that he did something about it. It is entirely my experience as a consultant that clients can so often not see a problem that is all too obvious to everyone else. Without acknowledging there is a problem they will not seek a solution. Despite what many of Beck’s adoring fans have alleged, I have not myself seen any evidence that the existing map by Fred Stingemore was causing widespread difficulties; Garland certainly doesn’t refer to any indications at the time, and official references to Beck’s map don’t either. Suggestions, for example, that the existing map was ‘chaotic’ seem to me like justification after the event by those in no position to make any objective judgement about the facts as they were at the time. What I think Beck did, as a professional in his field, is simply to say there is a better way to do this. Knowing full well that dealing with a large bureaucratic organization might not be easy, he designed the diagram first, and then showed it to the powers that be. He wanted to entice them with something he felt self-evidently better. The strategy eventually worked; it is no good at all maundering on about how things could be better  show them. If it is any good, they’ll want it. And they did, with the usual mistrust such an organization would have towards new ideas coming from the wrong place! But that is all history now.

So. I applaud Beck partly for what he achieved and partly for achieving anything at all in such a large organization in such a state of change in the run up to formation of London Transport. The design could so easily have stalled if the wrong person’s nose was put out of joint. But in the cold light of day there were aspects of the 1933 map that were far from perfect, some because they were just carried over from its predecessor. The Group’s lines are all different colours, but the independent Metropolitan Railway (itself comprising two different ‘lines’) is shown en bloc as a single colour, with obvious boundaries at High Street Kensington and Aldgate that offer no clues about where the trains went. This took years to fix. There was no time when both Piccadilly and District lines served the North Ealing to South Harrow section. The District Line at Earls Court is far from clear about round-the-corner journey possibilities. What happens between Liverpool Street and Shadwell? Some of these issues were fixed on later editions, but in turn these picked up new issues and today is hugely less clear than Beck’s original, in part because the system is nearly double the size but the size of the posters and pocket diagrams hasn’t changed.

For a start it is no longer an ‘Underground’ diagram, it is unashamedly a TfL transport map. Well, in itself there can be no objection to that except that cramming in the extra material (DLR and Overground) on a map already quite full up may not be the best approach. In addition we have two quite different philosophies vying with each other. With one (significant) exception each Underground line is an independent service group where by inference, if one stands at any station, if it looks as though one can get a train to another direct station eventually one will come. On the other hand, the DLR is in precisely the same manner divided into numerous service groups but there is no clue about this on the diagram: the whole lot is shown the same way. There are six separate DLR routes and one cannot, for example, get a train from South Quay to Tower Gateway or Bank to London City Airport; either looks possible on the Underground diagram. Similarly the Overground is also divided into discrete service groups. The approach is different again in that the service groups are this time implied by the interchange symbols, but it is still all the same colour. Why are the 11 Underground lines each in a different colour but the four equally discrete Overground lines the same? To my mind one can have the debate about which is the best method, but on any one diagram the user will surely expect the same single method to be used throughout? (The exception I mention is the Wimbledon -Edgware Road service which would be clearer if shown as a separate line and reduce confusion at Earls Court where diagrams have constantly struggled to indicate what is going on. Arrangements around the Hainault loop are not very clear either: one cannot get a train from Snaresbrook to Fairlop, for example.)
From a transport planning point of view the persistence of the traditional diagram raises some further interesting questions. If one takes London as a whole there are main line rail services all over London that are today of a character and service level equal to much of what is on the Underground diagram. These are all treated as though they do not exist. It is true that main line suburban railways have been frozen out of the Underground’s own publicity for 90 years or more, and there may have been a time when this was excusable and didn’t matter very much. Today we have integrated ticketing around London, and London is much larger and busier than it was. We know that these artificial system boundaries are an irritation. One might reasonably expect what, through its ubiquity, appears to be an urban railway diagram to show that one can get from Marylebone to West Ruislip the quick way, or Kentish Town to Blackfriars without a change, or Moorgate to Finsbury Park direct. And that is before indicating that rail serves many more places than the TfL lines do alone. Both London’s mayors have realized this and Mayor Johnson is pushing to integrate more of London’s inner London services into a TfL-friendly system. There are some interesting challenges in doing this as the services do not stop at the borders of the area where the people can vote for the Mayor, but in principle an integrated and seamless service is what people think they want. I trust nobody believes that all this can also be loaded onto the existing diagram without wrecking the simplicity it is supposed to stand for (and which I think has already been seriously eroded)?

Perhaps the diagram in its existing form has had its day? One could almost argue that the diagram, apparently having become an icon, is a bad thing as it makes any decision to change it that much more courageous. Perhaps there is a case for simply reducing it back to its original simplicity, and showing only the real Underground lines (as its front title still suggests). Have another diagram for the London ticketing area if one is needed, but please do better than what used to be called the London Connections map, which isn’t even easy to get (not at an Underground station anyway). Whatever is done, the present diagram seems a bit of a compromise too far. From what I’ve read of Beck, I’m not sure he’d be very happy with it either.

For those interested, the English Heritage plaque just erected is at 14 Wesley Road, Leyton E10.

The Finchley Society plaque is located at 60 Courthouse Road, West Finchley, London N12.

Good pictures of both these and a description may be found HERE

The third plaque is at Finchley Central station, which he is alleged to have used despite West Finchley being closer to home and his having to pass it on the way.

I recommend an item covering all three plaques HERE. The blog is worth following too – its owner seems to get out more than I do!

I also have a more detailed piece on information design aspects of Underground maps that can be viewed HERE. I have with colleagues also contributed to the Information Design Journal some observations about the London Bus map; I’ll spare you the references  but if you really want to know about it, just ask.

So far as the euphoria around Beck is concerned, it is never ending and yet so little new is being said. For example I get increasingly bored by being lectured that Beck only got 5 guineas for his work, as though he was especially hard done by, and with no context. Even using the most pessimistic of measures, this is at least £300 in today’s money, but in terms of what someone of his status could actually buy with that money in 1931 (remember how much time he was unemployed?) I would estimate that in value terms it could be worth double that. I don’t know how much Beck was paid, but he was quite junior and at that time clerks working for the Underground were lucky to be getting about £200 a year after depression ‘cuts’ so 5 guineas I think it would have been about two week’s wages. He was also paid for some other artwork separately. If we must go on about the chap, let us find something new to say, make it contextual and get it accurate.

None of this means that I don’t like Beck’s map as a piece of design doing a job. I have many of the maps in several different forms and if I had the wall-space would be happy to have one of the larger ones on display. In fact I usually have a worn out 1930s version on my person, so I can offer fellow travellers helpful advice, especially if failing to use the word ‘please’ when asking directions. Clearly there are many other collectors and map aficionados who admire and collect these things. That is not the issue. It is a working design to help guide travellers and ultimately do its part in easing London’s travel demands and that is what is in my mind when I’m wearing my professional hat. That there is nobody whose name trips off the lips as readily as Beck’s may be telling us more about the failure of the following three generations to make important information design improvements than much about Beck? It would make an interesting thesis.

I started this item suggesting that Beck was a four letter word. I do not of course mean this as some new expletive, but you may have gathered that, like a number of other four-letter words, it is one to use sparingly, if at all. Surely quite sufficient has been said, written, exhibited and commemorated by now?

We surely need to be worrying about the present significant information design problems, made more challenging by rapidly-changing technologies and passenger expectations, not those of 80 years ago. We need a twenty first century Beck, not necessarily the last one’s 80-year old diagram.

About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is
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