1932 + 1933

Posted: January 30th, 2009 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized | 7 Comments »

I usually don’t like to brag about a particular acquisition, but in this case I will make an exception. I was completely over the moon when I finally held in my hands the original Harry Beck London Underground foldout map from 1933. But I was even more thrilled to get hold of the preceding version of the map from 1932, clearly based on geographical location. London is undoubtedly an amazing place for someone interested in antique maps and books…

The two maps on the top are only a few months apart; however, they are separated by a drastic shift in mindset. The one on the left is the foldout map from 1932, still trying to conform to the geographical accuracy of its many stations. The one on the right, from 1933, was the brainchild of engineering draftsman Harry Beck, who decided to disregard geography for sake of legibility and understanding, leading to an irreversible path to abstraction that reached its peak with Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 map of the New York City Subway system. Beck’s contribution ended up becoming a major landmark of Information/Graphic Design and one of the most important maps of all time.

He believed that passengers riding the trains weren’t too bothered about the geographical accuracy, but were more interested in how to get from one station to another, and where to change. Thus he drew his famous diagram, looking more like an electrical schematic than a true map, on which all the stations were more or less equally spaced.

This path to abstraction started a few years before, in 1920 to be precise, with MacDonald Gill’s version, where he removed all the background detail (roads, parks, etc) that had been included in most of the previous designs. But it was Harry Beck who took the decisive step forward.

The Underground management was a little unsure of how the public would react to such a revolutionary change in the design, and in this original trial run from 1933 you can read a note on the front cover inviting people to send their comments to the Publicity Manager. The new map would end up being extremely well received, and becoming a major influence to all underground (subway) maps in the world.

It’s only when you see the two maps side-by-side (before and after) that you really understand the challenge and achievement of Harry Beck. This is the main reason why I’m having them framed together, to allow for an easy comparison between the two. What’s so impressive about Beck’s design, apart from its historical significance, is that it looks as modern and fresh today as it did in 1933. Follow this link for an extended history of the London Underground map.