Run, river, run

As the River Thames is restored to Harry Beck’s iconic London Tube map, Angus Montgomery looks at how to achieve cartographical clarity

The river is to return. Transport for London has bowed to the public outcry that followed its decision to take the Thames off Harry Beck’s iconic Tube map, and has announced that it will be back on ‘over the next week or so’.

Tube maps distributed last month had the Thames removed – as well as zonal information taken off – as part of a bid to simplify and declutter the map.

However, while some changes, such as revised interchange information, were warmly received, the decision to take the Thames off was a step too far, with even London Mayor Boris Johnson, then on a visit to New York, firing off a combative tweet saying, ‘Can’t believe that the Thames disappeared off the Tube map while I was out the country! It will be reinstated…

A statement from TfL says, ‘London has spoken and we have heard. The Thames is coming back to the Tube map in the next week or so.’ Normal service, it seems, has been resumed. But this issue has highlighted, in a very public way, the challenges of map design, and in particular getting the right amount of detail while ensuring legibility.

‘Of course the river should be on,’ says Tim Fendley, chairman and creative director of Applied Information Group, the consultancy behind the Legible London walking maps. While praising the decision to remove zonal information and operational times from the Tube map, taking the Thames off, he says, ‘went too far, and opened TfL up to criticism’.

Fendley says the need to get just the right information on a map is key to AIG’s way of working. He says, ‘We use a guideline we refer to as “parsimony”, which for us means striking the right balance between information and simplicity.’

What form this balance may take rests both on the designer’s judgement and on who the end-user will be. While the key elements of the Tube map, Fendley says, are the stops and junctions (‘the lines themselves could all be straight, for all it matters’, he points out), walking maps such as Legible London require far more detailed and colloquial information. He says, ‘When you’re walking, you’re concerned about things like the width of the street, and the angle of the bends. Walking maps need to be about landmarks – anything from a bend in the road to a big hotel.’

Legible London, which started to be installed in 2007, uses true-to-life angled roads and numerous landmarks, the most notable of which, such as Selfridges and Claridge’s, are rendered in 3D. The pilot scheme is being extended across the capital.

The design has also been adapted for a number of other cities, most recently Brighton & Hove, where signs were installed last week. Fendley says the Brighton & Hove project sees the debut of a new map-generation system, which will see bespoke maps created for different platforms – print, digital – from the same base information, rather than taking one map and adapting it to different media.

Ed Mainwaring is a cartographer based at the Ordnance Survey’s Southampton headquarters. He works as part of a team of designers on the OS range of maps, as well as on bespoke client projects, and frequently designs for different end-users than Fendley – drivers and cyclists, rather than walkers. His key considerations, he says, are ‘simplicity and clarity’.

Mainwaring says the aim of cartography is to communicate geographical or directional information through sometimes abstract designs ‘in the same way that brand designers have to communicate their message through the brand’. As Fendley says, ‘A map is always an abstraction of reality.’

Mainwaring says that sometimes his quest for simplicity is scuppered by a client’s desire for nostalgia. One client, he says, rejected a proposal for a simply rendered map in favour of the classic rastered OS explorer map design, complete with its hyper-detail. ‘I find with some clients that they have a real emotional attachment to the rastered design,’ says Mainwaring.

Perhaps, like Beck’s Tube map, some classics are best left alone.

History of the London Tube map
Pre-1908
– independent companies controlling individual Underground maps publish their own Tube maps
1908 – the first combined Tube map is published by the Underground Electric Railways Company of London
1931 -first diagrammatic map of the Underground is published, by draughtsman Harry Beck
2009 – the River Thames is removed from the Tube map, before being quickly reinstated

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