Co.Design

The London Tube Map, Redesigned For A Multiscreen World

Mark Noad updated Harry Beck's legendary design to be more geographically accurate and easier to read on mobile devices.

[Click here for the follow up post on the controversy that this story caused.—Ed.]

The London Underground map is right up there with the Mercator projection in the cartographic pantheon. Designer Harry Beck replaced assumptions of geographic accuracy with principles of electrical wiring diagrams to create an entirely new way of thinking about urban wayfinding. But that was nearly a century ago. According to research by NYU professor Zhan Gao, 30% of travelers choose the wrong route on the current London Tube map, which has twice as many transit lines and is just as likely to be squinted at on a smartphone as gazed at on a wall. Is it time for an update?

tube-map-old

[The old version. And the new...]

tube-map-new

Designer Mark Noad thinks so, and has created an updated London Underground map that tries to "square the circle" between geographical accuracy and visual simplicity — and add additional usability updates like condensed typography that make the map easier to use on-screen as well as in print. "I've always taken the Tube Map for granted," Noad tells Co.Design, "but as a designer, I've listened with interest to friends from outside London and overseas saying how confusing they find it especially when trying to relate to London at street level. So I wondered what Beck would do asked to start again with the different parameters we have today."

Beck's original map morphed London's unwieldy geography into neat shapes with only two angles: 90 degrees and 45 degrees. Noad's map adds 30- and 60-degree angles to the mix, which lets his map conform better to above-ground features. "I also commissioned a new condensed typeface which makes better use of the space, New Underground Condensed [designed by Dave Farey], based on Edward Johnston's original font," he says.

Noad's design is heresy, but even sacred cows sometimes need to be slaughtered.

Noad's design may seem like heresy, but even sacred cows sometimes need to be slaughtered — although Noad is too humble to claim his map does that. "I do not claim that the map I have created is better than the original and it is not intended as a replacement," he tells Co.Design. "Harry Beck's original is one of the greatest designs of the 20th century but, although the current diagram still follows the same principles, they have not been applied with any great care. As a result, I do not believe Beck would have been happy to put his name to the current version." Kudos to Noad for having the stones to experiment on a design whose supposed "perfection" may be keeping it from just being good — which is all we need our maps to be, at the end of the day.

new-tube-map

[Click to view larger]

[Explore Noad's Tube map here]

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21 Comments

  • David Marlor

    No bad as an attempt to be geographically accurate and readable. I actually like it.  But Uxbridge is closer to Heathrow than shown on this revised map, and Amersham further out - so still less accurate in the burbs.

  • Ange

    I don't think it's necessary. Everyone in London has an A-Z or an iphone anyway...

  • Guest

    How would the map look like I there would be other rail lines included as well, not just the tube and Docklands? You could add those using a thinner line with black/grayish color, I'm not sure if stations or stations and names should be listed.

  • Tom O'Donnell

    O.M.G. What a commission to receive. Tricky brief.
    However, what it gains in geographical accuracy it loses in simplicity. I think it's much harder to work out a route with changes in central London on this new plan.

    It's nice enough looking but not an improvement for getting confused people from A to B.

  • Aleksander

    I have to agree with the criticism about the legibility and functionality of the redesigned map/diagram. Kudos for trying to make it better, though.

    As for the walking distances, there were numerous attempts to apply such layer to the original design — http://j.mp/nP3w9u  Not the most practical perhaps but I'm sure a good graphical method could be found.

  • erik Spiekermann

     it would be helpful for people to have a more geographical map of the centre of London to encourage walking.
    There is. The project Legible London provides those, at Tube stations and along the street in a lot of neighbourhoods. They address all the issues. Check this: http://bit.ly/pxvwdJ 

  • Paul Owen

    I think this exercise completely missed it's own
    point; and the point of the Beck infographic (it's not a map).

     

    'More geographically correct' or
    geographically correct?

    The original London Underground
    maps were geographically correct. There were numerous versions. See them here:

    http://www.cs.bc.edu/~syu/artv...

    All these iterations attempted to
    simplify a complex geography to create as concise a navigation tool as
    possible. The insight? While street level requires accurate
    geography, being underground doesn’t - you travel in the dark to a station. Just
    connecting dots. It is also worth remembering that London has another
    magnificent navigation tool called the A-Z street level map for, well,
    navigating at street-level. And if you must, you can always use Google.

     

    But even this point is moot as
    the new 'map' only professes to be 'more’ geographically correct and therefore
    only offers half an answer to an assumed solution to what appears to be an
    unasked question.

     

    'Easier to read' on mobile
    devices? How is it?

    Having worked with screen design
    for more than 16 years, I've heard it all. Red doesn't work on TV - colored
    logos don't work at small sizes on web - Bold typefaces don't work on mobile.
    Now apparently a condensed typeface is better for on-screen usability. Really?
    And a newly commissioned typeface was required for this purpose? I have to call
    BS here.

     

    I'm also not convinced that there
    will be any less squinting with the new map as the changes in appearance are
    marginal at best. So marginal, that I would guess that the same 30% lost
    tourists will still be lost, even with this thing in their hand – or phone.

     

    I also wonder why, given the
    exercise was to redesign for smart phone navigation, why a static map designed
    as a poster needs to be squeezed into a smartphone at all.

     

    I navigate the NY subway with my
    smartphone - I use a search engine tool from MTA to get my route options. I use
    an augmented reality locator app to find the stations at street level and use
    the in-station signage and single line graphic maps when my smartphone isn’t so
    smart. i.e. underground. I have the NYC Subway map on my smartphone and if
    required find it very simple to use. I can freely zoom in and out and flick the
    fella around quite easily and compared to the London map, the NYC map is a real
    dogs dinner.

    Advice: Incremental change is the
    scourge of the design world. If there is a real question to be asked of design,
    blow everything up and start from scratch. Don’t tinker, tweak and add layers
    of nonsense.

     

    Leave the genius of the Beck infographic
    alone and help NY sort it’s Subway navigation mess out. Now
    there’s a question no one has answered well.

     

  • Marcus Leis Allion

    A lengthy comment but hopefully one that will be of interest.Diagram or Cartogram?Network Diagrams are graphic representations of interconnected mesh of elements/data/information.Cartogram’s are a kind of map that deliberately distort particular details to reflect information other than land area or distance.While the distinction is nuanced we could drive a wedge between these two descriptions by suggesting the following: Diagrams: ideal visualisation of abstract information.Cartograms: particular visualisation of material reality.I would suggest that ‘Harry’ (Henry) Beck took inspiration from the ideals of network diagramatic approaches and applied them onto a Mapped area, which resulted in the particular Cartogram we know as the Tube map.Remember, Beck was inspired by the diagrams of electrical circuits and not electrical circuits themselves. The real electric circuits rarely if ever looked like their schemas (unlike modern day circuit boards which often come extremely close).Why should we deliberate over this apparently petty detail?All visualisations are constructions that emerge from particular ideologies. The ideology that guides Beck’s work (and much graphic design) is the ‘one’. Design work has been predicated on a number of material factors that have determined why it appears as it does. So, for example, Beck’s Cartogram was explicity bound with a whole raft of economies (financial, material, social) that delimited what could be produced. The idea of producing a series of maps for example was excluded because the means of producing them were (assumed) to be too costly. The medium of print, the technology of printing, the cost of production and distribution (etc.) are all factors that come to play on the decisions made.We recognise that when we engage with digital technologies we are no longer beholden to the same restrictions. There need not be a final outcome. Work is in flux and can easily be recalled, edited, and republished with minimal costs. Moreover, work can be edited to suit our particular preferences. We can copy the text off a poorly designed website, paste it into an application and (re)design the typography and layout, (then possibly proceed to print) in order to aid our access to the text.So while print was biased towards the one (either as compromise or elite) the digital is biased towards the multiple. There is no longer a tube map, but rather there are tube maps. Indeed, I see no reason why these multiples cannot be bought together (as erik Spiekermann comment begins to suggest) and the possibility of selecting or arranging particular maps according to a specific number of criteria becomes an everyday reality. Maps should be dynamic and reconfiguaruble according to the demands I make upon them, not an imposition placed upon me from (someone) outside. Importantly, this does not negate the role of the designer, but recognises the multiplicity of different users and differnet situations. There is (more) work to be done, and Mark Noad’s design is a (tentative) step in that direction.Further:1) Knots and geography: A psychologist challenges the Beck gospel of Underground octolinearityhttp://blog.eyema... Travel Time Tube Map: London Underground map reorganise around the times of travel from that station.http://www.tom-carden.co.uk/p5/tube_m...

  • Joel Blair

    Seoul has a great online service for their 14 line subway system. You simply click on your departure and arrival stations. The system tells you the best route, the fare and travel time. It's the best way to navigate their massive subway. If 30% of travelers choose the wrong route on the London Tube, this sort of interactive map could be a great solution. http://bit.ly/10e46

  • Theo Inglis

    I quiet like this but I don't think its necessary to change the current tube map. Doing a geographically correct tube map can only work in the centre of London, the big distances on the outer zones is the whole reason why the map now isn't geographically correct. That said I think it would be helpful for people to have a more geographical map of the centre of London to encourage walking. Im not sure this redesign really shows how close some stations are such as Covent Garden and Leicester Square or Euston and Euston Square for example. I don't see how this redesigned map would help people who are travelling on the tube and not thinking of walking. But It woud be a benefit to anyone who wants to walk as well, and it would be more useful for basic navigation above ground. Combined with the great wayfaring system that you find next to the hireable bikes and a bit of a sense of direction you could probably find your way to anywhere on foot. 

    I have never had any trouble when I visit London using the current map, Id say the New York subway map is much more difficult and is the one that needs a redesign!

  • Anthony Lui

    I echo Spiekermann's comments here.

    This map does very little to solve the distance relationships between the tube stations. Heathrow looks closer to South Ealing than Oxford Circus does to Liverpool Street, something which, in terms of time and distance I assure you, it is not. The introduction of two more angles obfuscates the clarity of the map with no real benefit.

    I'd also like to be pointed to research which says condensed faces are easier for on screen use.

    A good effort and obviously a great conversation piece, but I think a better approach to a map for a multiscreen world would be one which would refactor and adapt the distances of the map based on the user's given input.

    Let's not think with static minds in this "multiscreen world".

  • erik Spiekermann

    The common misunderstanding is in calling Harry Beck’s work a map. It isn’t, it’s a diagram. Not meant to show geographic relationships, but connections. The alternative shown here may look more like a geographical representation but still has to change scale from the outside to the inside. There are dozens of stations listed where it would be quicker to walk from one to the other instead of taking a train. This diagrammatic map doesn’t show that. So now it is more complicated than the diagram and still not as accurate as a map.

    What exactly is its benefit? It is much easier to check the simple diagram on a small screen and use Google maps for proper directions. A solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Good graphic design, but not information design.

  • hans.gerwitz

    I think it'd be fair to criticize this work as either too deferential to Beck or as too bold a departure.  But the gem here is Noad's goal of balancing geo-accuracy and readable simplicity.  This may be the most successful attempt I've seen yet, kudos.

  • Shaun Tollerton

    It's not better than Harry Beck's tube map, but it is a refreshing alternative. -1 for using ITC Johnston™ instead of Gill Sans.

  • Nick Hand

    -10 for suggesting Gill Sans. The font on the current tube map is New Johnston developed from the original Johnston font (1928, Edward Johnston) by Elichi Kono at Banks & Miles. The ITC version is a poor relation and a condensed version probably not a good choice either. So actually your -1 was about right.

  • Shaun Tollerton

    In saying Gill Sans, I did in fact mean the current Tube Map typeface, which as you rightly say is New Johnston.  :-)