Probably to most people (me included) tend to make the following equation: Design = Brand/Label. Nevertheless, I believe that this is wrong since literally everything we see has a design. I tend to look at design as a plan or a concept. In other words: design is something beyond individual taste.

The Math of Nature

Living creatures such as plants, animals and humans have been designed by nature’s evolution. Already in 1202, the Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci released a mathematical model describing the system nature builds leaves, flowers, shells and other things. This sequence is called “Fibonacci numbers”.

The Evolution of Cities

I agree that most cities and even many houses are products of an evolution. Wars and natural disasters destroyed them and people rebuild them “organically”. Modern architects have to plan around these structures. Still, they now have a design. After all it is a planned decision (whatever the reasons) which part of the city or buildings remain “old-style” and which ones have to be replaced by a newly planned addition.

Other cities like Brasilia, Chandigarh (India), Manhattan or Canberra have been planned from scratch by urban designers. The streets are numbered and mostly in a rectangular order.

Plans and Maps

If we think of maps – especially of European ones – “design” or “plan” are not the first notions jumping in our minds. Although the individual roads are planned the entire picture looks very organic. A mountain pass is never rectangular and roads typically run along the topography rather than a ruler.

Genius Is Simplifying Things

Did you ever look at a modern plan of the London Underground or the Métro in Paris or probably any other modern city? I assume you did. Did you notice that they are all designed according to the same system? I take the liberty to assume that subconsciously did but never thought about it.

So did I, until I read of Henry Beck (1902-1974). He worked as a technical designer for the London Transport. While the Tube grew larger and larger Mr Beck noticed that the plans grew more confusing with every station they added to the railway system.

5 Steps to Ingenious Simplicity

Mr Beck was obviously very committed to his job since he searched for remedy to this complication in his spare time.

In 1931 he presented to his bosses a schematic plan with the following changes and features

  1. Instead of drawing the distances between the stations in scale he choose the same distance between each of them
  2. The strokes that marked the lines where either drawn horizontally, vertically or in angles of 45 degrees
  3. He used an individual colour for each line so it was easy to see which line served with station to get the passengers to their destination
  4. Each station appeared as a short stroke on the map
  5. Only the stations with an interchange facility were marked with a diamond shape

The Result Turned Out to Be Contagious

Although a bit reluctant, the management of the London Underground decided to give the new schematic plan a try and printed a small amount to be handed out to passengers.

The echo was overwhelming, people loved the clarity of this plan and it soon took over. Other cities used Beck’s design for their public transport systems.

Harry Beck took care of the update of “his” plan until 1960. If you compare his version from 1931 and the modern London Tube you’ll find little difference concerning the design.

Also the plan for the streetcars and busses in the town of Zurich look the same.

Bottom Line

Not only Beck’s design is ingenious but also it fit the time. Remember, in 1919 the famous Bauhaus where function was “wrapped in design” opened its doors and was very influential until it had to close in 1933. Although Mr Beck says he did not understand much about modern art he had a liking for maps that were as clear as a technical plan.

I’d say he understand that sometimes less is more.

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