Representing London

May 24, 2016

Beck’s London tube map is rightly held up as a pinnacle of graphic design. It is a benchmark for map-making, perfectly bridging a demand for clarity with a bold and arresting aesthetic.

For this reason, Beck’s map has defined part of what we think of as ‘London’ from the moment of its release onto the walls of London’s stations to the present day.

As with all great works, once they have been assimilated into cultural life everything that comes after them becomes a comparison, or an homage. So it is with Beck’s map. It has been appropriated by many causes to spotlight their vision of London, playing on our familiarity with the original. In a recent Guardian article ‘London Reimagined: Alternative Tube Maps’ Athlyn Cathcart-Keays leads us on an exploration of Beck’s map reimagined. In one map the station names are replaced by average rent prices, in another, by walking distances between the stops. In some, the map has been redrawn entirely to give a new emphasis to geographic accuracy, or to track life expectancy by locality.

The versatility of these maps illustrate the skill and scope of maps as visual tools. Far from being purely geographic in nature, a map layers meaning onto a locality and can help to define or interpret the culture of its inhabitants. A good map, well designed and well considered, provides a snapshot of dense information in a readily accessible format. Using colour, scale, symbols & composition the complexities of a city can be honed to a single focus. In the Guardian’s reimagined guide we see evidence of Beck’s genius. His map so beautifully condenses London that it still serves as a template for illustrating the concerns and imaginings of today’s Londoners.

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