Design Classic #1: London Underground Map

The London Underground map of the tube system is an out-&-out design classic – one that seamlessly merges form and function, defies previous convention, and has remained an inspiration for over 70 years.


When the first underground railway opened on January 10, 1863 – carrying 40,000 passengers in a day – little did the architects dream that a sprawling London metropolis would see a boom in the underground rail system to the level it has today. By 1908, however, more underground routes meant a map showing how stations linked together was needed – and the designers opted for a conventional, geographic-based map that looked like a bowl of multi-coloured spaghetti.

For Harry Beck, a draughtsman employed by the Underground, the map presented two design challenges – it was difficult to read, and the central area was too busy.

His proposal – originally in 1931 – was radical. He tossed aside the need to tie stations to topographic locations, and pitched a schematic map, which was inspired by his own fascination with electrical circuit diagrams. As it was non-geographic, Beck could expand out the size of the central area where there were more stations, and compress the outer fringes, where there were less stations.

Despite initial refusal by the Underground management to publish the map, it finally made it into the hands of the public in 1933 – and it gained immediate success. Beck was paid a paltry five guineas, although he is commemorated with a plaque at Finchley Central station. He died in 1974.

Why it’s a design classic

The underground map has little changed since 1933 – a testament to its longevity as a functional design – and has been the basis for transportation maps worldwide. What makes it a true, inspirational classic is the radical nature of the change – most design changes tend to be evolutionary and safe – and the fact it uses a small collection of design rules to simplify the layout.

Beck decided against the organic, realistic lines of previous maps, and limited himself to only using horizontal, vertical, and 45-degree rules – providing clean lines. Symbols were limited too – dots represented stations; circles and diamonds represented interchanges. Each route was given a different, and distinct, colour – making it easy to plot a route between stations.

In the end, the map has come to symbolize London itself – despite looking nothing like it from a geographical viewpoint. Form and function, in perfection.

Tom Evans
Creative director - Mook,

The London Underground map is Central to Metropolitan travel. Without it Northern visitors would journey full Circle without a clue which District they’re in. Unless their father was a Baker. Loo’s have not been illustrated on the map since the Jubilee, as my wife Victoria discovered to her horror when she was desperate to Piccadilly. She ended up in East London taking a Waterloo & City behind the local Hammersmith. And City dwellers don’t take kindly to that sort of thing I can tell you.

Victoria Buchanan
Joint creative director - Tribal DDB London,

I love the London tube map. I love the colours, the type, the shapes and the forms. I love the fact it is a geographical lie but I believe it. The round outlines of stations happy to spin you round and onto another line and push you on your journey. The confident simplicity and clarity has always taken all fear out of travelling for me. As a design icon it goes unnoticed, a forgotten piece of genius, but for those that look and notice it’s a visual and daily pleasure for the London tube traveller.

Simon Crab
Creative director - Lateral,

The first defining experience the visitor has in London – and all Londoners are visitors – is the tube journey. The tube journey is defined by the tube map – an ever-present image throughout the city. It shows the city not as a rational geographical space but as a corbusian machine, a circuit diagram that echoes the dislocation and distortion of modern urban life. Like all design icons the tube map seems unimprovable, as it solves a complicated problem with seemingly effortless elegance.

Terence Krejzl
director - Thoughtbubble,

The tube map is a perfect example of good application of design working to the advantage of everyone. Becks schematic representation is a flash of genius that was ahead of its time and will last for generations. When I was growing up the tube map was how I saw London so the A-Z was always a little confusing - how dare they build Bayswater and Queensway so close together and not adhere to Becks master plan! Even now I regularly hear tourists and daytrippers from the country trying to get their bearings on the ‘yellow’ line because they can’t get their heads around the geographical reality. Thanks Harry Beck for a national design icon.

Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn't affect our editorial independence. Learn more.

Read Next...