You may take it for granted nowadays, but the simplified nature of current metro maps can be attributed to a single person: Henry Charles Beck.
In a recent piece by Eugen Esanu for UX Planet, he talks about how Beck – an engineering draftsman – worked on creating the London Underground Tube Map in the 1920s. Though he never stayed with the company past the decade, his contributions to cleaning up eight different railway systems which eventually became the London Underground cannot be understated.
Before Beck came along, maps depicting the Underground were complex and nearly un-navigable — at least, by modern UX standards. While they accurately portrayed every river, park, tree, and road above ground, it was next to impossible for passengers to decipher them to find out where they needed to go to get from A to B.
To this end, Beck took it upon himself to simplify the process. He cut out all the geographical markers people didn’t need and stuck to simple lines. These color-coded lines were strictly horizontal, vertical, and diagonal and featured dots signifying the stations they were connected to. The resulting diagram has helped countless London citizens find their daily tram.
Beck followed three core principles when making the map: focus, simplicity, and thinking from all perspectives.
Focus is simple. By knowing who you’re making something for, you can tailor the experience specifically for the person. Since Beck had the common Londoner or foreign traveler in mind, he was able to envision a map which could be understood with little-to-no explanation.
Which brings about the second principle: simplicity. With all the cruft removed from the previous Underground map, people could easily understand the railway system and which trains led to where.
Lastly, Beck took the time to think from all perspectives. By looking out from an engineering standpoint and into the mind of a commuter, he was able to see how removing unnecessary details from the previous map—and refining the important ones—could help make the Underground a less scary place to navigate.
It’s fascinating how one man’s map became the standard for other big cities around the world. Tokyo, Paris, New York – all of which take inspiration from Beck’s design. You can read Esanu’s entire article here.