One Perfect Thing

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by Justin Sullivan

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Before Harry Beck, the London Underground map was an earnest mess. Faithfully beholden to geographical accuracy, its early versions were a tangle of rail lines criss-crossing the city center like fighting snakes.

But Beck, who worked for the Underground as an electrical draftsman, was accustomed to turning complex pathways into crisp forms. He also had a long daily commute from the suburb of North Finchley to think about what really mattered to the average traveler: clarity. Treating the city of London as his circuit, Beck turned the energy of a sprawling metropolis into a few elegant lines that were immediately legible to harried commuters. He traded geographical verisimilitude for topographical simplicity and followed a rigid formula: lines ran only vertically, horizontally, or on 45-degree angles. His sparing use of symbols—in the original, diamonds stood for stops with multiple lines—and introduction of color coding made for a map that was both better looking and more functional than previous versions.

All subway maps since, from Cologne to Tokyo to Washington, D.C., have owed a debt to Beck’s design. And even though the current Parisian and New York City subway maps have abandoned his 45-degree rule, all lines still lead back to Beck.

1 Two years ago, the Underground issued a version of the map without the River Thames. Even the detail-averse Beck had left it in his original design. Mayor Boris Johnson requested that it be reinstated, and the river returned in a new edition three months later. 2 Friends teased Beck about the obvious influence of electrical wiring on the map. Though he always claimed to be more inspired by sewage systems, he acknowledged their jokes in a parody of his own map that replaced stops with electrical terms (“Amp” for “Hampstead”; “Bakelite Tube” for “Bakerloo Line”). 3 Beck’s long daily commute from North Finchley gave him time to think about the best way to map distances. He decided that the most important concern for travelers was a clear route, not a geograph-ically accurate one.