London Underground Map Myths


Every single tiny revision to Underground maps bearing Beck's name was the deliberate work of Beck himself.
Those changes not strictly necessary reflect an obsessive attention to detail

This is another one of those questions in which the truth has been lost in time and we are going to have to examine it on the basis of the balance of probabilities. The problem is that printing technology has always been complex and (in those days) laborious to implement, especially in colour. For example (n.b. this is not necessarily how it was done, this is simply an illustration of the types of laborious procedures in use at the time): the original coloured map would be redrawn to make a camera-ready copy with all details in black, it would then be photographed several times (once for each colour). Next, using the original drawing as a reference, each negative would have its other colours blacked out. For example, on the negative to be used to create the red plate, everything that was not red on the original would be painted out. With such a process, Beck's original map would have required six negatives. For a simple alteration, such as a station closure, whatever the exact technology, the easiest way of making it would be to alter the negative directly, or the camera-ready copy, rather than create an entire new original (easier even than modifying a section of the original). After 1947, when Beck left London Transport, it is worth asking whether he would even have been consulted on minor changes.

The interesting thing is that all published examples of Beck's artwork are too rough to have been photographed directly (some even have angle errors on them), so would have to be redrawn to make camera-ready copy. This is true no matter what the printing process used. Who drew the camera-ready copy? We do not know, but even if it was drawn by Beck, the printing process has thus created a game of 'design Chinese whispers'. When camera-ready copy is being created from an original, chances are it won't be identical, especially differing in details that are not really that important. Suppose a second camera-ready copy is created from an original (because the same design map is needed, but the original camera ready copy and the negatives have been damaged/lost), chances are it now won't be identical to the original or the first copy, and subtle changes will start leaking through onto new editions of maps. Pre-computers, whenever a new issue of a map involved any new artwork, changes would be inevitable even when not intended.


Will we ever understand the mysterious moving ampersand?

What does this mean? When two maps differ, say, because an ampersand is in a slightly different position on each version, it is so easy to over-interpret details such as this. Beck becomes an obsessive, making alterations for no good reason. Did he really redraw the whole map just to make some minor unnecessary changes? Perhaps we might even diagnose him with Asperger's syndrome. We must balance this amateur psychology with an alternative possibility: new camera-ready copy was needed, which was never going to be a perfect match to the previous one. Changes in trivial details are therefore an inevitable consequence of the design and printing process. Beck stops showing inexplicable obsessions with trivial details, and the changes to designs, where he made them, were to bring about obvious improvements, to accommodate the requirements of LT management, or by accident. He now becomes what he has always been, a skilled innovative designer rather than a psychological case study.


Back to the myths homepage
Last updated 22/08/07