When people ask why I want to go into graphic design, or what type of design I want to do, this is the story I like to tell them.

During an orchestra exchange me and a couple of friends had around six hours of time to explore London. Each of us had been given a one-day all-zone tube ticket and one of those cheap maps you get at the tourist office. None of us had ever been to London before and our English wasn’t great.

First, we wanted to get from Hyde Park, where we’d been dropped off, to the British Museum. We figured out the lines we’d have to take to get there: Picadilly Line from Hydepark Corner to Leiscter Square, then Northern Line to Tottenham Court Road. We were a bit nervous going down the escalator, but to our surprise everything went smoothly. We knew immidiately were we had to go, when our train would arrive and where we’d get off. We got to the Museum fast and without having to stop and look at the map even once. Everything seemed obvious.

When we wanted to get from Oxford Circus to Harrod’s, we didn’t even bother looking at the map. We took Victoria Line to Green Park, then Picadilly Line to Knightsbridge while chatting, drinking coffee and taking selfies.

We felt smart. By the end of the day tough, when we told everyone else from the orchestra about the great day we’d had, it turned out everybody told the same story. How they’d been a bit nervous at first, but soon got to where they wanted without even thinking about which line to take. That’s when it occured to me: Our experience wasn’t random. It wasn’t our orientation skills that helped us get around London so easily, but conscious design descisions Transport for London had made.

Their system of architecture, signage, iconography, typography and color isn’t built to look nice. It’s built to guide you through everey step of your trip; from entering the station, getting on the train to getting off the train and leaving the station. It gives you exactly the pieces of information you need at any given point, and it’s designed to work even if you’re not from London, English isn’t your first language, you can’t see very well or you’re in a rush.

Harry Beck’s original Tube Map Design
Harry Beck’s original Tube Map Design (1931). Via Commons

Take the tube map as an example: It’s not impressive. It looks just like any other public transport map. But in 1931 Harry Beck1, who worked as a technical draftsman for LPTP thought about the question people are trying to answer when they’re looking at it: “Which lines do I take to get from this station to another, and where do I change trains?”.

Next, he figured out what pieces of information would be useful to answer that question, and which would be distracting.2 The design he developed based on those considerations wasn’t based on a geographical city map but a simple grid, and used colours to mark the different lines.

It became the prototype for public transport maps not only in London, but all over the world.

Current Tube Map (2014)

Harry Beck wasn’t an artist. There’s nothing “elegant” or “beautiful” about his work. You can’t buy any of it in fancy designer stores. But every day his work helps millions of people3 accomplish what they’re trying to do feeling smart and empowered.

That’s the kind of design work I want to do.

  1. Harry Beck did some more interesting work 

  2. The typeface Transport for London uses is another example of this. It’s called Johnston Sans and there is nothing impressive about it. It’s just extremely well readable, even under bad lighting or weather conditions 

  3. According to this Wikipedia Article it’s over 1.2 billion people per year just in London alone.