20 December, 2007
Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 10
Harry Beck's map of the London Underground is one of those seminal information graphics that has come to define an entire category. It must be as widely recognized as Mendeleev's design for the periodic table of the elements; it's surely been as influential, and as widely imitated and spoofed.
What makes both diagrams significant is that they bravely dispense with information traditionally thought to be crucial. Mendeleev described matter without any of its physical characteristics, which freed scientists to infer more significant information purely from the table itself. And Beck realized that the scale of a city was irrelevant to a commuter (as well as difficult to draw), so he bent the shape of Greater London to meet the needs of the map, in what's technically called a cartogram.
Mark Ovenden's Transit Maps of the World is a terrific and well-illustrated tour through the world that Beck created. It's interesting to compare the choice of cartograms and equal-area maps in different cities, and at different times: Beck's diagrammatic plan for the Paris Métro was rejected in favor of a beloved but impenetrable drawing, which is just the kind of Gallic gesture that has been confounding the English for centuries. The images in Ovenden's book make it tempting to make inferences about the cultures behind the maps: the diagrams for Moscow, St. Petersburg and Nizhiny Novgorod have an undeniably Suprematist bent, and those for Beijing and Guangzhou look as if they could actually be the Simplified Chinese ideogram for "subway." Closer to home, the map of Los Angeles looks likes an Anasazi petroglyph, and that of Washington, D.C. resembles nothing more than a pit of highly partisan snakes. —JH