Henry C. Beck

Henry Charles Beck, also known as Harry, was born in Leyton, London on June 4th, 1902. He was the son of Joshua and Eleanor Beck, who both grew up close to West Ham. For the first two years of his life, Beck lived at 14 Wesley Rd, in his families newly built terraced house. Then the Beck family moved to Highgate, a suburban area of North London, where he attended Grove House School, which accommodates students from ages 8-19. After that, he studied art classes locally and spent some time in Italy, where he studied marble sculpting. During the 1920s Beck went through many part-time jobs as well as doing some freelancing, where he created commercial artwork for corporate magazines or public advertisements. Then in 1925 Beck became an engineering draftsman at the Signal Engineer’s Office of the London railroads. This is where he became familiar with the London Underground, also known as the Tube, while he drew schematics for electrical systems of many London railways. Six years later, while unemployed in 1931, Beck designed the first draft of his very innovative map of the London Underground that made him famous today. This was very ironic for multiple reasons. Beck was a very unlikely cartographic visionary with his previous jobs and background in mind, as well as the fact he previously did paid design work for the London Underground, just for completely different aspects of it. So, the inspiration for the design that eventually became a standard and inspiration for others only came from his curiosity to improve and simplify people’s lives, without instruction from an employer. However it did not happen overnight, this first design he made and submitted to the Publicity Department was rejected by Frank Pick, the managing director of the Underground group, for being “too revolutionary”, even though Beck’s colleagues had encouraged him through the process. This was because the signature innovation that Beck incorporated in his design of the London Underground was completely separating the map of railways from the dense geography of London. At the time this was a very radical idea and Pick took his role of controlling the public image of the underground very seriously and was very careful about making any changes to it. Like many other artists and designers, at first Beck was considered a little crazy, but he kept with it and revised the design and submitted it again a year later. This time Pick was still skeptical, but Beck’s perseverance got a trial of 500 copies printed and put into a few stations in 1932. With success in those select stations, Pick was convinced enough to take a risk and print 750,000 copies in January 1933. Then one month later another 100,000 copies were printed after millions more due to an astounding response from the London Public.

So what made Beck’s design so much different and revolutionary? Well to be specific, Beck’s modernist idea that Tube passengers didn’t need to see the geography where the stations took you, instead that the maps should show exactly where the stations and rail lines linked up with each other. He thought about the bare essentials that passengers needed to easily navigate. So he took out all distances and measurements and turned them into purposely colorful lines, he later called ‘the vermicelli’. He also made all the rail lines 90 and 45 degree passageways, no matter how crooked they were in reality, believed today to be based off a modernist grid system. He further simplified reading the map by using minimal vocabulary along with symbols in a variant of Edward Johnson’s “Underground Railway Sans” typeface from 1916. Just in case people were unsure of where the stations were in relation to the world above Beck included one topographical feature, which was an outline of the River Thames. Many experts believed his design concepts came from the iconography that he used while doing electrical schematics. Beck’s London Underground map design is now widely considered the most groundbreaking work of the 20th century for information design. Nonetheless, what a lot of people don’t know, is that at the time he barely got any credit for the advancement. In fact, for the original map Beck created that got printed hundreds of thousands of times, he only got paid an equivalent of 10 US Dollars. Although his source of income and lineup of jobs became more stable throughout the 1930s, Beck never got the recognition that the London Transport employees received. In exchange for signing over the copyright of his design, Beck insisted that he be the one that updated the map for all future network changes. For thirty years he continuously revised and restructured his original map. He became so obsessed with what he called “the diagram” that his wife Nora would find piles of notes under his pillow that he would scribble down in the middle of the night. That is until 1959, when Beck walked into a local station and saw that there was a map on the wall similar to his own, but not done by him. It was signed by the new publicity manager of the London Underground, Harold Hutchison, who decided that Beck’s contributions were no longer wanted. Beck became fed up with the London Transport constantly disregarding his previous agreement with Pick about doing all the revisions to his map himself, so he started writing letters to the London Underground arguing the new maps were influenced by him, but his efforts were ineffective. Furthermore, London was not the only city that he was trying to convince that his design would be an improvement for their citizens. In the late 1930s, again without being commissioned for it, Beck submitted the initial version of a map for the Paris Metro’s labyrinthine subway system. The other revised one was sent around 1951, but the French refused Beck’s designs for multiple reasons. One of the main ones was Beck’s belief that “If you’re going underground, why do you need to bother about geography? It’s not so important. Connections are the thing.” On the contrary, the French believed there was no way to draw their monorail system without their geography being incorporated, due to their railway system existing above-ground more than it did below. As well as the underground portion of the metro being built a lot closer to the ground level than London’s was. This combined with the extreme national pride the French had with maps of Paris itself, prevented Beck’s modernizations from being utilized there.

Around the same time during the 1950s, a man by the name of Ken Garland moved to London from a small village in Devon, England to study art, where he struggled navigating the London Underground. That is until he saw Beck’s map in the Tube, which is when he asked around the college he attended to find the person responsible for his breakthrough in navigating the Tube. At this period of his life, Beck was teaching part-time at the London College of Printing, which is where Garland found him and they became lifelong friends. Garland characterized Beck as modest and said “he was not influenced by contemporary art”, in fact, “he knew little or nothing about it.”, even though his design is considered modernist. Additionally, Beck remained barely credited for the major advancement in map design he contributed until after his death, on September 18, 1974. He actually may have never received the recognition he deserved if it was not for his good friend Garland, who saved piles of sketches when Beck became increasingly ill. Garland knew the significant impact those drawings had on the development of transportation map making forever. One of the pieces he saved was actually the first pencil sketch of the diagram for the Tube, which is now at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  Even though the fame for his work did not come until after his death, Beck’s resilience and original thinking played a major role in information design history. Today, in the modern world, you can still see Beck’s legacy and influence in current map design across the world, from New York City subway systems to companies logistics structures.



1.) Famous Graphic Designers:


2.) English Heritage:

Photo of Harry Beck with his London Underground map. © Ken Garland


3.) Pioneers of Information Design (Word Press): 

Harry Beck: Biography

4.) Amodern: 


5.) TimeOut London: