London Underground’s pioneer

by Bee Heller
October 16, 2013

You don’t have to look very far before you find stories of pioneers in every organisation. My favourite are the seemlingly most unlikely individuals who come up with brilliant new ideas that last a generation or more. One such example is Harry Beck, designer of the current London Underground Tube map.

A Finchley resident and regular Tube user himself, Beck had first hand experience of the mapping needs of train riders (London Underground customers). His work as an engineering draftsman for London Underground also helped to inspire his original map. Beck worked on his designs as an uncomissioned, spare time project, clearly fascinated by the user advantage a simpler topographical map would bring. By focusing on the connections between the stations and different rail lines underground, and largely ignoring the geography above, Beck was able to produce his now iconic Tube map.

After first submitting his radical new idea in 1931, it was over a year before London Underground management would even trial Beck’s map. However, it proved a huge success with customers and in 1933 700,000 copies of Beck’s map were printed and distributed across the London Underground network. Within a month a new, even larger print run was needed.

London Underground management ultimately came to recognise the skills of their map design pioneer and continued to draw upon these for the proceeding two decades. Beck left London Underground in 1959 but his contribution to establishing the world famous map is now paid tribute to on every London Underground map with the statement: ‘This diagram is an evolution of the original design conceived in 1931 by Harry Beck’. Beck’s approach has and continues to inspire map designs for transport systems around the world, from subway systems in Sydney and New York to airlines and shipping companies.

Are you looking for the Harry Becks in your organisation?

We love hearing about pioneering stories like this. If you come across one, send it our way and we’ll showcase it here on our blog. Examples of other stories we’ve shared include:

Pioneering customer service from Netflix

Floyd Lee – a pioneering cook in the US Army

A US debt collection agency being ‘nice’!

The rise of the Big Mac

Our favourite pioneers at Nando’s Camberwell