The Enduring Legacy of Harry Beck’s Designs For the Iconic London Tube Map

For his “Unfinished London” series, comedian Jay Foreman focused on the legacy of the previously unrecognized mapmaker Harry Beck and his designs of the London Underground map, which is also known as the Tube Map. Foreman had previously taken a cheeky look at the early history of the map and continued the theme with finer detail.

The Tube Map, as it came to be known, came to define London and changed the way Londoners see their own city. Even if you weren’t traveling by underground the Tube Map was a useful way to familiarise and orient yourself. …I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say the Tube Map is the closest thing London has to a flag. Staring at the Tube Map should make you want to jump on a train and go exploring. And if it’s well designed, cared about and done properly that’s exactly what it will continue to do for generations.

Foreman also talks about how good Beck was at designing maps and how little he was paid for them, in both currency and recognition.

For his first design, he was paid the paltry sum of five guineas which in today’s money is…about £5.25. And he wasn’t paid much more for the any of his other designs. Worse still, despite the Tube Map’s extremely wide distribution, Harry was never paid any royalties. No contract of any kind had ever been signed. There was an unofficial unwritten understanding that any time London transport needed an update to their map Harry Beck would do it for them.

After years of fighting, Harry Beck left London and his mapmaking business. His work went uncredited until it was put to right in 2001. And Beck’s work has influenced transit maps in cities worldwide, that is, except for the subway map in New York City.

The impact of his design has reached far beyond London. Pretty much every city in the world with any kind of transport network has a map with a colourful, schematic, non-geographic diagram that wouldn’t exist without Harry Beck with the notable exception of the New York Subway, which insists on being as baffling and ugly as possible.

Harry Beck London Tube Map
Lori Dorn
Lori Dorn

Lori is a Laughing Squid Contributing Editor based in New York City who has been writing blog posts for over a decade. She also enjoys making jewelry, playing guitar, taking photos and mixing craft cocktails.