Bibliothèque Design, just down the street a piece from Ace Hotel London Shoreditch, paid tribute to English engineering draftsman Harry Beck who in 1931 created the (now somewhat altered) present-day London Underground Tube map, uncommissioned, in his off-duty hours from the Tube’s Signals Office. As originally presented in Beck’s brief, Bibliothèque used only two colors, red for the Central line and black for the Northern Line, deleting those lines that require colors not loyal to the brief, leaving only a constellation of tentatively connected coordinates.
Beck’s radical proposal to create a stop-to-stop guide for Londoners rather than a geographically accurate representation of stop locations on a city map was seen as radical, even ridiculous, and was met with skepticism (like most good ideas). But the idea was posed to the public with a small pamphlet two years into Beck’s campaign and was, as they say, an instant classic.
Beck’s influence is recognized by graphic designers some seventy years later as a catalyst for user-friendly information design that followed its own instincts and logic, rather than cohering to established visual communication norms. A.A. Degani, in A Tale of Two Maps, suggested this year that Beck’s configuration of a “relaxed grid … which has a certain rhythm and charm” is “somewhat similar to the grid used by modern artists (such as Piet Mondrian’s painting Composition With Yellow, Blue and Red).”
Before such blue ribbons were awarded, Beck’s success with the Tube map alone boosted his confidence and conviction such that in 1951 he presented the Paris city government with a Beckified version of the Metro map he had drawn up in the late thirties, some fifteen years earlier. They thought the map scandalously radical and rejected it without public input — they weren’t to use a diagrammatic transport map until 1999. Poo poo, Paris! Beck’s iconic style is now the norm for transit and urban rail companies the world over.
Hats off to those who show up uninvited and reinvent the game.