The London Underground, or “the Tube” as it’s colloquially known, is the oldest metro system in the world. It began its life in January 1863 with a single underground line running between Paddington and Farringdon–about four miles–in central London. On its opening day it carried over 38,000 passengers via steam locomotives and wooden carriages illuminated by gas-light.
Jump forward 152 years and the single line London Underground has grown exponentially–-and organically-–trying to keep pace with the global metropolis London has become. Today the London Underground comprises 270 stations across 250 miles of track. Its annual number of passengers exceeds 1.2 billion per year, millions of those journeys made by tourists who would never consider visiting London without taking a ride on the Tube, that rickety central nervous system of the capital. Indeed, the Underground is now as synonymous with “London” as Big Ben or Buckingham Palace. It is also one of the most well-known and recognizable public transport systems in the world–even to those who have never stepped foot in the capital, thanks to one thing: the design of its map.
It is a map design so influential that it has formed the basis of myriad other metro system maps around the world. Millions of commuters rely on the map to get to and from work and go about their lives daily. Tens of millions of visitors rely on it to move around the city each year. Any changes to the map can have consequences to the local economy and how certain areas of the city are perceived, which is why any changes are often met with fierce criticism. But it is a map which is once again changing–perhaps more radically than it has at any time in the past 80 years–due to the launch of the new Night Tube service which, pending opposition, is set to commence on September 12. I spoke to Jon Hunter, Head of Design for Transport for London, whose team was tasked with redesigning the Tube map for the new night service, to talk about the history of the Tube map and to find out how you go about recreating the world’s most iconic public transportation map for a new era.
Believe it or not, for the first 45 years of the Underground’s existence there was no official map. Instead there were multiple maps put out by the various train operators showing only the parts of the Underground their trains served. It wasn’t until 1908 that all the railways got together to publish the first branded “Underground” map.
Yet this map was very different from the one we’re used to today. Since it was a geographically based map, some stations were crowded together, making them hard to read, while others were left off the map entirely because they were too far out. The stations that were shown were connected by lines that curved and twisted like colored rivers laid on top of major high streets visible on the map.
But then in 1933 the Beck Map was published—the Tube map that has become known the world over and used as the model other cities use to make their public transport maps.
“It was transformational,” says Hunter when I ask him how important Beck’s map was to the history of public transit design, “providing a simple way to plan and navigate through an often unfamiliar and challenging environment at the time–although we take underground travel for granted today, it was, at the time, a new way to travel. Often imitated but never bettered-–its underlying principles truly stand the test of time.”
The Beck Map was created by Henry Beck, an electrical draftsman for the London Underground who realized that the physical locations of each station didn’t matter to those traveling underground. So in his free time Beck worked on creating a map that resembled the circuit diagrams he was used to designing for his day job.
On Beck’s map, instead of geographical accuracy, the clarity and connections of the Underground lines were emphasized. The curved colored Tube lines became angular and set against a plain white background; the distance between stations became more evenly spaced and uniform. The geographic became the schematic and the Beck Map became a hit–both in London and globally. Virtually all public metro maps in cities across the world are now based on Beck’s schematic design principles.
“Its fingerprints can be seen throughout the world,” Hunter says. “[It’s] arguably one of the most emulated cartographic styles–its children spread to all corners of the globe–the familiar and comforting brightly colored lines, controlled geometry and comforting simplicity bringing order to chaos in which ever city you travel–-a true testament to its efficacy.”
While over the proceeding 80 years Beck’s map has changed with the times–adding fare zones, adding new Tube lines and stations–-its brilliant schematic simplicity has remained. It is one of the best examples of how important good design is in everyday life. That’s why you can imagine it’s quite an undertaking when you are tasked with updating the map for a new era.
But that is exactly what Jon Hunter, Head of Design for Transport for London, was asked to do when it was announced in September 2014 that for the first time in its 150+ year history a new Night Tube service would begin running in the capital–in less than 12 months. That didn’t leave a lot of time to design a map that 8.6 million people would rely on.
“Without sounding like a cliché,” says Hunter, “it’s almost as if we were having a child. It took almost nine months.” And if London’s new Night Tube service were like many other city’s 24-hour metro services, nine months would have been more than enough time to simply slap a new banner on existing maps letting the public know trains are now running 24 hours a day. But London’s new night service is not simply a 24-hour extension of the entire Underground network.
To start with, the Night Tube service will only operate on Friday and Saturday nights. And in the beginning only five of the city’s eleven Tube lines will run at night, with only select stations along some of those lines being served. These factors presented significant design challenges: a separate Night Tube map was needed that was at once both as familiar, but at the same time strikingly different than the day map commuters were used to.
“Essentially we knew the map should be very familiar to the user but it should be differentiated enough that there will be no confusion,” says Hunter. “The last thing we want is customers confused over the commuter night services during the day, or the day services during the night.”
To achieve a map that is both different and familiar to the iconic Tube map, Hunter and his team worked through dozens of iterations, taking inspiration from Beck’s original map as well as looking across international borders to other cities metro maps.
The final Night Tube map–a dark background, relatively sparse schematic–has been widely praised by the public for its simplicity, distinctiveness, and clarity. It is a map, Hunter says, that was arrived at because it ticked three self-imposed “critical success factors” the TFL design team demanded:
From the dozens of maps tested, Hunter and his team narrowed it down to four. One such map used the standard white background of the regular Tube map but with a very dark border framing the map. “Unfortunately during the testing our customers didn’t pick up on the subtleties of that and there was a little bit of confusion over, ‘Is this another version of the day map? Is this an engineering map?’“
“That’s what drove us to the conclusion that … an overall dark background was the way to provide that delineation, that separation,” Hunter says. Along with the final Night Tube map’s alternating “night blue” background Hunter’s team added two more distinctions. The first was a simple linguistic cue on the header of the map reading “Night Tube”. But as London is a global city with millions of non-English speaking visitors, Hunter knew they needed another purely visual cue. To do that, Hunter’s team repurposed another longstanding Transport for London logo and updated that too for a new era: the London Night Bus Owl.
“We’ve taken the owl, which is quite synonymous with our own organization–-it’s been around for the Night Bus since the 1980s–-and we re-interpreted it, so it’s quite a more contemporary feel.”
Keen commuters will notice that not only is the owl logo a new design, but it incorporates design elements from sections of the Tube map itself: the circular station markers for the eyes and the curve of the tracks for the wing. Even the owl’s beak borrows the dot above the “i” from Transport for London’s Johnston typeface–-the font used in all signage for public transport in London.
“These are quite subtle cues, some of them, but it does give us quite a wise owl and quite a distinct identity,” says Hunter.
The next critical success factor Hunter’s team mandated for its map was familiarity–-a seemingly counterintuitive goal considering the importance of differentiating the Night Tube map. Yet though the Night Tube map is strikingly different in its color pallets-–and incredibly sparse compared to the day map since it only shows the lines and stations along those lines that are served by the night service–Hunter and his team were able to ensure commuters would be able to recognize they were looking at the same transportation system that they use during the day by utilizing recognizable elements.
“If you overlay [the day map on the night map] you’ll see that the [Tube] lines are in the same place. The river is in the same place. The only things which we’ve really moved around are some of the station names, just to make sure we have a bit of design balance,” says Hunter, who notes that they did test versions of the Night Tube map that left non-serviced Tube lines greyed out on the map, but testing showed that commuters were only interested in seeing what lines were available to them that were operating at that time.
“Although we might have taken some lines away–-for example, we’ve taken off the entire DLR, Docklands Light Railway, we’ve taken off the entire Overground, also the District Line and Metropolitan Line–-the lines which remain actually do form a very familiar pattern to our customers,” says Hunter.
The final critical success factor for the Night Tube map was consistency. Its design was one that needed to be easily translatable across all touchpoints, including the large versions of the map on station walls, the half-width “double royal” versions, and the straight-lined Car Line Diagrams found inside individual carriages.
“We’ve tried to be as seamless as we can with all of our touchpoints,” says Hunter. “We have to make sure we’re using it consistently across all touchpoints, whether it be printed, whether it be online, or whether it be through marketing and promotional activities.”
This consistency includes making sure the night version of the map is always in very close proximity to the day version, which helps add another layer of familiarity to the new map.
Though one can argue that the Night Tube map adds another layer of complexity to London’s existing public transport maps since it requires the use of an additional map, it is also probably the first Underground map in decades that most resembles Beck’s original vision for a clean, simplified Tube map.
“Of course by stripping off all the information of the stations we’re not showing during the night it does make it a cleaner product. It makes it a simpler product. The design starts to probably echo the original intent of the Beck maps,” says Hunter, who concedes that many commuters lament that Beck’s simplicity has been lost in the ever-complex day map that exists now.
“The original principles of the Beck map were never designed for so many lines and additional networks and all the zones, and everything else to be overlaid on top of them so we felt we had a bit more freedom, design freedom, to allow those original principles to make the whole thing fit for purpose, to actually shine through on the Night Tube.”
But though much time and effort has been spent on designing a distinct, simplified Night Tube map–-and one that has been so well received and praised for its beauty–-it is a map, Hunter admits, that will likely never be around for as long as Beck’s classic has been.
That’s because Transport for London plans to slowly add additional night time services to the Underground, including the Metropolitan, Circle, District, and Hammersmith & City lines by 2021, with the remaining Tube lines likely to follow. It also plans to add night services to the London Overground in 2017 and the Docklands Light Railway by 2021–-transit lines that currently exist on the day map.
“We need to make these products simple for customers to understand and there’s nothing simpler than just having one single product,” says Hunter, who notes that right now the limited portions of the Underground running at night necessitated a separate map–-one which he says that his team “strived hard to make sure [the day and night maps were] two separate products, with their own separate purposes.”
But ideally, Hunter admits, they’d like just one universal map. “In the end eventually all of our services will run 24 hours, so we won’t need to make any separation,” he says. “That’s quite nice.”
[If you love the design of the new Night Tube map or Harry Beck’s 1931 Tube map you can vote for them to be crowned one of London’s transport design icons. The vote is open until October and is part of Transport for London’s ‘Transported by Design’ campaign, which celebrates the role of good design in London’s transport network.]