Henry Charles Beck – The Graphic Designer

At the age of 29 produced the first sketch for the Diagram in 1931 that revolutionized the mapping system of metro systems around the world.

Henry Charles Beck (1902–1974), known as Harry Beck, was an English engineering draftsman, best known for creating the present London Underground Tube map in 1931. Beck drew up the diagram in his spare time on two pages of an exercise book while working as an engineering draftsman at the London Underground Signals Office. London Underground was initially skeptical of Beck’s radical proposal, an uncommissioned spare-time project, but tentatively introduced it to the public via a small pamphlet in 1933. It was immediately popular, and the Underground has used topological maps to illustrate the network ever since.

There are three significant features of the design that would be included in all the future versions of the graphic. Firstly, the simplification of the route lines to verticals, horizontals or diagonal, secondly, the expansion of the central inner city area, and, finally the elimination of all surface details except for the line of the River Thames. The River Thames was presented in the same stylized form as the route lines.

According to some accounts, Beck was never formally commissioned to develop his initial idea and worked on the map only in his spare time. He was thus never actually paid for the map. Other sources report that he was paid a fee of five or ten guineas. In 1947, when he was not fully employed (having left London Transport) he began teaching typography and colour design at the London School of Printing and Kindred Trades.

After long failing to acknowledge Beck’s importance as the original designer of the Tube map, London Regional Transport finally created the Beck gallery at the London Transport Museum in the early 1990s, where his works are displayed. Since 2001 Transport for London has also started to credit Beck for the original idea on the modern Tube maps. In March 2006 viewers of BBC2’s The Culture Show and visitors to London’s Design Museum voted Harry Beck’s Tube map as their second-favourite British design of the 20th century in the Great British Design Quest. The winner was the Concorde. In January 2009, the Royal Mail issued a set of postage stamps celebrating the British design classics, among them was the contemporary version of the London Underground diagram.

Beck’s first sketch


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