How To Ruin A Design Classic

The London Underground (or the “Tube” as we like to call it here) has arguably the most iconic map in the world. The circuit-diagram style map invented by Henry Beck in 1933 paved the way for the way in which most modern metro/subway systems portray their transit networks today. Its success in aiding the traveller to find their way from A to B is a testament to its simplicity and as the saying goes “it it ain’t broke, don’t fix it“.

As the underground has expanded and changed over the years so Transport for London has updated and tweaked the map. Fair enough, but unfortunately it appears that their designers have got a bit carried away and with every new version it seems to be getting more and more complex and cluttered.

For an idea of what I mean just compare the 2004 & 2008 editions of the map:

London Underground Tube Map 2004
London Underground Tube Map 2004

London Underground Tube Map 2008
London Underground Tube Map 2008

I think you’ll agree that the differences are striking. The main things which come to my mind:

  • Adding background shading to show the zones is irrelevant and distracts the eye; when was your decision to go somewhere last influenced by what zone it was in?
  • Adding the blue step-free access signs only helps a tiny fraction of map users and actually removes detail as you can no longer tell which stations are interchanges; why not have a separate map showing disabled access provisions?
  • The new “London Overground” lines are a glaringly poor addition; they feel like they have been drawn around the existing map rather than integrated with it – is trying to bring together over & underground maps really a good idea?
  • The tiny red symbols, indicating “Check before you travel” in the key, are completely pointless and only add more visual clutter; they look more like crucifixes to me!
London Underground Tube Map

So there you have it – how to ruin a design classic in four easy steps!

Update (12 Oct 2009): TfL has introduced a new map which addresses a lot of these issues. I’ve reviewed it here.

David avatar

19 responses

  1. Wow, I will mark this day in history as the day Tom finally agreed with something I said!!

  2. miles avatar

    very clear analysis. it's easy to imagine the drip drip of requirements from different bits of tfl that have resulted in things like zones and overground railways being added, and i suppose in many ways they've done as good a job of incorporating the requirements as they could.

    love the idea of different editions of the map being produced – leaving the classic as an option.

    (and apropos of yesterday's post here's a dragon castle related link

  3. Thanks Miles – to me it smells like an IA with too much time on their hands!!

    The video is great but I think it needs a soundtrack 🙂

  4. completely agree

  5. Here's another attempt to ruin things – sorry!!

  6. I liked the black font for the station names much more. I agree that the addition of the wheelchair symbols clutters it further. Seems like attempts to be PC and information overkill are indeed ruining what was once a piece of art.

  7. I travel around London pretty much every day, going to a wide range of destinations and have travelled almost the whole network on my journeys. So I need to know which zone the station I am going to is in and avoid getting fined. Therefore the zoning helps. Also, the overground lines help to avoid unnecessary journeys into central London to change lines. They are also very important for travelling around South London.

    you should consider what the map is for? is it to help people to use the travel network? or be a piece of artwork?

    although the lovely pure lines of the 2004 version have been added to, it’s now more useful. I suppose if you go back to the original versions, taking the arguments given a couple of stages more, then travel on the Jubilee line (to give just one example) would be more unlikely as travellers wouldn’t know it was there!

  8. Tim (or should I call you the unofficial spokesperson for TFL?) – I can see where you’re coming from but I still argue that 90% of the maps users wont need that level of detail which actually detracts from the overall readability.

    Most people use pay as you go Oyster cards so it’s pretty hard to get fined these days unless you are intentionally trying to game the system.

  9. Micky avatar

    You're wrong about everything here.

    The new map might be cluttered, but is so for a reason. E.g. there are more lines and stations on that map, maybe orange/white isn't the best combination, but it needs to be there regardless of whether you use it personally or not. A lot of people do.

    The disabled sign is something you shouldn't mind unless you've a very cold heart, for those of us able to see it won't be a problem spotting which stations have interchanges.

    Those of us who live central and don't have zone 1-6 travelcards, it is important to see what zone the station is in as the prices go up the further you go from zone 1.

    The new design is aesthetically more pleasing.

  10. Micky, this isn't a question of whether the disabled station indicators should or shouldn't be there, it's a question of intelligent implementation. Of course you have to make updates to reflect the changing infrastructure, but design done well doesn't have to reduce the clarity of what went before it. The current design is adequate at best.

  11. James avatar

    they should make a separate map for disabled users as the DLR covered with them looks silly. i think that the overground lines are a complicated as they are just normal national rail lines but they are owned by TFL so i dont know what's best – to make a map with just underground – one with the underground and useful connections with oyster card usage or if TFL made one network for the railways in london , would all of them be put on the map? I have always wondered, if they did make such a network, where would it start and end – the fare zone limits, or practical commuter/end of the line limits like Aylesbury or Slough

  12. RebeccaOfSunnyBrookFarm avatar

    quote: “why not have a separate map showing disabled access provisions?”
    To have a separate map for disabled persons use would mean that there was a map in existance that was discrimiantory because it showed only abled-bodied persons access.
    Such a publication would be unlawful under the Government Act that protects the rights of all citizens of this country and of Europe in general.

  13. Dunha avatar

    Oh! Shut up! What a crap! You surelly not live in London. Design should help, not confuse people!!!

  14. TechRighter avatar

    As a current Londonite, I use the zone information regularly – I guess I’m not being paid enough not to take note of zones! Plus, one of my pet hates with the maps is when the DON’T show the overground because this is information that I don’t have immediately in my memory (compared to the line that I actually travel on regularly).

    I’d say that the 2004 version might be more handy for a new traveller, but the 2008 version works better for the city dweller.

  15. A typical “How by saying more to tell less!”

  16. Nik Frankis avatar
    Nik Frankis

    I like the shaded zone areas, at least you can get the right ticket for the journey. Everything else i agree with

  17. […] has been talked and theorised about, and much has been done to, the London Tube Map, the epitome of […]

  18. Paul avatar

    We can have it all. The clearer the design, the better to show all the new information. Of course the wheelchair symbols should be on the map. But the point is that they are badly integrated into the design. The wheelchair symbol, of which there are two variants, needs a rethink. Look at TFL’s current tube map (Sept 2011). Green Park and Westminster have lost clarity because of bad implemation of the wheelchair symbol.

  19. The overground lines shown are part of TFL and form part of the ‘London Underground’/Tube network. It would be ridiculous not to have them on the map – they are an integral means of getting around London by train.

    I don’t understand why TFL lumped them all together as London Overground without taking the publicity opportunity of naming each line; perhaps:- North London Line, East London Line, The Goblin Line, and The Euston Line. After all every London Underground line has a name.

    The confusion engendered by the wheelchair symbol is easily remedied; there is a very thick outline on the interchange symbol – why can’t that be added to the wheelchair symbol where the station is also an interchange?

    Having said that I do feel that there is a limit to the amount of information the map can legibly take.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *