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?
[The old version. And the 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 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.