Public transportation maps play a crucial role in our daily lives. How many of you use buses, trains, or subways regularly? Many people worldwide depend on these maps to find their way. 

Most of these maps are pretty straightforward, with colorful lines that make them more efficient and easier to understand, even though there could be many routes on a single map. Whether you're in Singapore, London, Tokyo, or anywhere else, you may also notice that the maps usually follow a typical design.

Singapore’s MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) Map
Singapore’s MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) Map

Victoria, Australia’s Train Network‍
Victoria, Australia’s Train Network

Jakarta Public Transportation Integration Map
Jakarta Public Transportation Integration Map

But have you ever wondered where this map design came from? We definitely should thank Harry Beck, who created the first map for the London Tube in 1933. This map style remains in use today, serving as a prime example of effective user interface design in problem-solving. Let's delve into why it's such a game-changer.

The London Underground Tube Map Story

The London Underground has a long history, starting in 1863 when the first underground railway, the Metropolitan Railway, opened. It ran between Paddington and Farringdon and had six stops in between.

During this period, the London public transportation maps primarily served as guides to display service schedules, connections with horse-drawn buses, and points of interest. These maps were like geographical guides, helping passengers understand where they were in relation to the streets above.

London Underground Tube Map

As more underground lines were added, something important happened in 1908. Different underground railways in London got together and created one common map. This new map, available as both a big poster and a small pocket-sized version, became a handy guide for navigating the Underground and finding your way around London.

London Underground Tube Map

But there was a problem with this map. It tried to show too much information, and as a result, it became confusing and hard to understand at a glance. It didn't do what a good informational graphic should – quickly and clearly communicate complex information.

“The London Underground came together in 1908, when eight different independent railways merged to create a single system. They needed a map to represent that system so people would know where to ride. The map they made is complicated. You can see rivers, bodies of water, trees and parks — the stations were all crammed together at the center of the map, and out in the periphery, there were some that couldn’t even fit on the map. So the map was geographically accurate, but maybe not so useful.” - Michael Bierut,  a lecturer in the practice of design and management at the Yale School of Management.

Everyone, Say Thanks to Harry Beck

In 1931, Harry Beck, who worked as an electrician for London Transport, came up with a unique map idea. Instead of using a traditional map with real geography, he designed it like an electronic circuit diagram. 

London Underground Tube Map
Harry Beck

Beck realized that since most of the railway was underground, the actual locations of the stations didn't matter much to passengers. They just needed to know where to get on and where to get off. What really mattered was understanding the system, not the physical layout.

To simplify things, Beck drew the train lines only in vertical, horizontal, or 45-degree diagonal directions. He used different colors to show different lines and He used different symbols, like  tick marks to show regular stations and diamonds for interchange stations. 

London Underground Tube Map

Initially, Beck's idea was turned down by the Underground's PR department because it was seen as too revolutionary. It was only after lots of testing that people realized it was actually easier to read and use compared to the old maps.

What Lessons Can be Learned?

After the new map became popular, Beck kept improving it for nearly three decades, taking suggestions from people and London Transport. Over time, the London Underground map became famous worldwide for its excellent design.

As Michael Bierut said, "I bet Harry Beck wouldn't have known what a user interface was, but that's essentially what he designed."

So, what can today's designers learn from this story and apply in their work?

London Underground Tube Map

Putting Users First

When Harry Beck revamped the map, he smartly figured out what the users really wanted. He saw that the old map was too confusing, and people just needed a simple way to know where to start and finish their trip. So, he made a map that solved these problems.

This is an important lesson for designers today: understand what users need before creating a design, because ultimately, our designs are meant to help users.

Emphasize Simplicity

Just as Beck simplified the design, it's crucial for us to streamline user interactions to be as simple and effective as possible without sacrificing information. Think about: what's the quickest way to deliver that need?

Cross-Disciplinary Thinking

It's quite unexpected that an electrical engineer like Harry Beck turned out to be the one who unlocked the solution to simplify a complex system and design a map that's still in use today. This shows the importance of thinking creatively and seeking inspiration from different fields when needed.

Embrace New Ideas

Initially, the simpler design was rejected because it looked quite different from the old one. It needed some testing before  the company approved it.

When we make something new, there are always good and bad sides to consider. However, if we never try it out, we won't know if it's good or not. But it's also really important to have a clear reason for the design choices we make instead of just trying things randomly.

Keep Iterating

Remember, it's important to keep improving your designs. For example, in 1935, Beck changed the colors of the Bakerloo and Central lines from red and orange to brown and red because they were hard to distinguish in artificial light. We can always make adjustments to keep our designs better and up-to-date.

The creation of this map highlights the importance of UI/UX design, emphasizing how simplicity and clarity in design can make complex systems more accessible and user-friendly.  Elements like colors, symbols, and lines can play a crucial role in conveying information clearly. Also, what we might consider ordinary today was once a groundbreaking invention.

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