From A-B using the A-Z

A book about the creation of the A-Z map prompts Tim Rich to ask why the A-Z does not receive the recognition it deserves in terms of being a classic piece of design

Henry Beck’s London Underground map is often put forward as a “classic” work of design. But there is a greater example of information design for London – The Geographers’ Map Company’s A-Z. While the Tube diagram depicts a small network, the A-Z represents every significant roadway, park, cemetery, sewage works, rail line and large public building. It is a triumph of design – at once complex and simple, comprehensive and particular.

It is also fast. Imagine, if you will, young Buck McMulligan; fresh off Delta Airlines flight 474 and keen to explore our capital with his capital. Give him a Tube map and ask him to plan a journey from Highbury & Islington to Ravenscourt Park; it will probably take him about a minute. Impressive. Ask young McMulligan to plot a journey on foot from 1 Back Hill (EC1) to 125 Queen’s Yard (WC1) and it would take about the same time, despite the dense weave of streets between the two. Amazing.

The A-Z is magnanimous too; it helps the tourist, the flat hunter, the party goer, the business person, the shopper, the walker, the cyclist, the cabby. As long as you read English, it is thoroughly democratic.

Only through experiencing other city maps do we realise how miraculously complete the London A-Z is. The anaemic approximations of Adobe Illustrator-ed urban America; the dense Gothic of printed Paris; all easier to render and harder to read.

The story of the creator of the A-Z has been confined to the dingy cul-de-sac of vanity publishing, but a new book Mrs P’s Journey: The remarkable story of the woman who created the A-Z map by Sarah Hartley (published by Simon & Schuster UK), offers welcome professional illumination. It traces the life of Phyllis Pearsall, the artist daughter of a cantankerous map publisher. This feisty young woman found navigating 1930s London tiresome. The city had changed faster than the maps, and the child of an entrepreneur smelt an opportunity.

Working alone, Pearsall walked and mapped 23 000 streets, devised an intricate indexing system, then inspired a team of cartographers, draughtsmen and printers to represent her findings topoand typographically. Her father wanted to call it “The OK Street Atlas and Guide to London’. Fortunately, her colleagues also thought that name was crap and stuck to Pearsall’s beloved “A-Z”. Today, her company, now The Geographer’s Trust, produces 250 guides to cities worldwide.

The story of the A-Z is interesting, but the stories within the A-Z are fascinating. From Eden Road (E17) to World’s End Place (SW10); it invites the imagination to take a walk. Every St, Rd, Sq, Yd, Bk and Cir can take you somewhere. You can read it for its patterns and shapes, like the ladder of streets to the right of the tracks between Harringay and Hornsey railway stations, and Heathrow’s Inca-esque offerings to the sky Gods. Or take your mind’s eye down other ways; the fearful monochrome of south Rainham, where the colour has drained from the face of the map and you find Frog Island, Hornchurch Shoot, the works, the yards, the marshes.

Like any book, the A-Z speaks to you differently with each reading, and exchanges information with your experiences. There is irony in its tales too. Pretty names disguise street-level brutality; forbidding descriptors hide welcoming communities.

Functional, inspiring and commercially successful, why is the A-Z not regarded as a design classic? Ubiquity often breeds myopia, but Beck’s map is regarded high and low. Perhaps the A-Z is overlooked because no one “designer” can be identified with the work. Or perhaps its completeness offends design’s arbiters. The Tube map sits nicely in the canon of contemporary European design; minimal, clean, singular, visibly intelligent, controlled. The A-Z is complex, dirty, plural, transparently intelligent and as near-chaotic as the land it depicts. The A-Z is delightfully, brilliantly common.

Would a new edition of the A-Z ever win a British Design & Art Direction’s D&AD Award? Probably not. Is Pearsall’s work included in the major encyclopaedias of design? No. Hartley points out that the world of cartography was sniffy about it too. “the term A-Z is as familiar to the public as the brand-names Sellotape and Hoover, yet The History of London in Maps and The Times Atlas of London included every other conceivable morsel of information, but has quite pointedly left out Pearsall”

How purists fear the popular.

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