Saturday, October 9, 2010

Henry Beck, Maps as Art: Revisioning the Tube

For the next two weeks an art exhibition of Dr. Max Roberts will be held in London.  Dr Roberts works entail the re-visioning of London's iconic Tube maps: maps as art.  Although the maps have been on display elsewhere before, this is their first appearance in London itself.   The brochure for the event explains it as such:
Dr. Roberts attempts to feminize the Tube by replacing
Beck's straight lines and angles with soft curves.

Since revolutionising map design in 1933, Henry Beck’s iconic map of the London Underground has set the standard for the mapping of transport networks worldwide but is this template always a success?
That is the subject of an exhibition of map designs, by University of Essex researcher Dr Maxwell Roberts. . . .
Underground Maps Unravelled: Explorations in Information Design explores the use of Beck’s basic design rules: replacing chaotic, twisting routes with straight lines, horizontal, vertical or diagonals at 45 degrees only. It also looks at whether today’s complex transport networks require fresh approaches.
Dr Roberts, of Essex’s Department of Psychology, presents a collection of his own work: maps that break all the rules, maps that are easier to use, maps that teach us about good design, maps that challenge our preconceptions, and maps that are just intended to be decorative.
He explained: ‘With today’s emphasis on using public transport, and the ever-increasing complexity of networks around the world, it is vital that designers create the best possible maps. All too often, the general public are faced with designs that are poor quality, off-putting, and perhaps barely useable. We need to take a good look at whether fresh approaches are required.’
You can see many of the works on display here.

So, who was this Henry Beck fellow, and why was his 1933 map so revolutionary?  Well, his work fundamentally changed cartography and how we go about depicting information about the world we live in.  His map might not look like much, but if you live in a city with a rail or bus system and use it to get around it is likely that you have Beck to thank for finding your way around so much easier.

1908 London Tube map
Before 1908 finding your way around London's underground rail system was a mess. The London Underground, as it is known today, had yet to be consolidated into a single company, and different underground railways ran different lines, and it was often hard navigate the city if you had to use a variety of lines not owned by one company. But in 1908 the first combined map was published. It showed 8 of the Underground's lines, four operated by the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL) and one line each from four other rail companies. The map, while improving the situation somewhat, was, needless to say, still not perfect. The map was, for the most part, geographically accurate, showing the various twists and turns of the underground rail lines as they criss-crossed beneath the streets of London. However, in trying to keep the map accurate, geographically, it was necessary to omit the outer portions of the rail lines so that the detail of the more congested central portion of the map could still be read.

1933 Underground brochure with Beck's map
In 1931, engineering draftsman Harry Beck did away with the geographical base of the Tube map. He realized that accurate representations of the physical locations of the stations and lines was irrelevant. What was important was the topology, the raw data making up the system. A person wanting to get from point A to point D on the rail simply wants to know how the two points are connected, and will let the rail worry about getting them there once they are aboard the proper train. As such, geographical accuracy is not needed. Beck's simplified map showed stations as points on the map, but instead of connecting them with curves and squiggles, he used straight horizontal, vertical, or 45 degree angle lines. The points representing the stations moved to fit into this system of lines, and because nothing was to scale, areas could be stretched or squeezed as needed to fit and be understandable on the diagram.

The Underground was skeptical of the map, but the small brochure they printed with the map in 1933 became immediately popular. He continued to work on improving the map until 1960, when he had a falling out with the company, but his final version of the map still bears a strong resemblance to the map used today. Additionally, his topological tube map also became the standard for the depiction of rail and public transportation systems in other cities around the world.

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