1. Transport
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July 24, 2015updated 28 Jul 2021 3:30pm

This week's amateur tube map takes London back to basics

By Jonn Elledge

Some people make their own metro maps for fun. Others, like my 16 year old self, do it because they don’t get out very much.

But others still do it for professional reasons – to refine their design skills and show them off to the world.

Rich Cousins is in this last category. On his website he describes himself as “an art director with a keen eye for design and a passion for branding”. His own version of the tube map, he says, is “something I’ve been meaning to try for years”.

The brief Cousins gave himself was to strip the map back to its barest essentials: “Simplify. Simplify. SIMPLIFY.” To that end, he kept the straight lines and 45 degree angles from Harry Beck’s original design, as well as the circles to represent interchange stations and “ticks” to represent others.

But he hacked back a huge swathe of extraneous detail, cluttering up the official map. He took out the cable car, and the branch of the future Crossrail route that’s currently branded as TfL Rail. More controversially, for the purpose of design clarity, he stripped out the symbols that tell you whether a particular station is accessible in a wheelchair – though he admits “this is clearly a big missing feature”.

The full version of  designer Rich Cousins’ take on the tube map. 

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The map simplifies things in other ways, too. The vast majority of the stations are on a grid – placed on invisible horizontal and vertical lines, and spaced at regular intervals. Wherever possible, interchange stations are represented by a single circle, rather than two or even three as on the current map. (This is often done to show that some platforms are accessible while others aren’t.)

Other features were included to reinforce the fact the map is graphical rather than geographical. The Thames isn’t there, for a start; in places, lines go off at sudden right angles, to keep them within a relatively tight area. And lines that follow the same route are placed tightly together, even where they don’t share tracks, so as to tidy up the map.

A detail from Rich Cousins’ design of the tube map. This version includes a background grid, to highlight the regular spacing of the stations.

There are some things here we really like. The fact station names are written in line colours wherever possible, to reinforce which line they are on, is a nice touch. And the use of the subtle, rippling grey curves to represent the fare zones is bloody lovely – the information is easy to see when you need it, but when you don’t your eyes will happily just slide over it.

Other things we’re less keen on. The total abandon of geography is nice in principle, but leads to some confusing oddities. An Overground line now cuts through the middle of the Central Line loop, when in reality it does no such thing. At the other end of London, West Ruislip is now a long way south of Ickenham, rather than a short distance north of it.

The central area of Cousins’ map. He admits to some concerns around the Euston area. “It almost seems geographically impossible, so still not sure this actually works yet”

The single circle interchanges produce some oddities, too. Bank/Monument is now a single station, which makes sense in that they’re a single complex, but stands to confuse tourists who rely on the names on platform signs. Similarly, there’s now a station called Walthamstow Central & Queens Road, which doesn’t really exist on the ground.

Just occasionally, in touches like that, and in its exclusion of disability access symbols, Cousins’ map seems to prioritise attractive design over useful information. I’ve some sympathy with this – I’ve spent enough time whinging about the ugliness of the current map – but there is a danger in forgetting the fact a metro map is meant to be functional as well as beautiful.

That said, on his own website, Cousins lists as a number of things he’s not happy with in the current design, and asks for feedback: this is not intended as a final version.

“I’m not posing this as a perfect alternative to the current official tube map,” he writes, “but as an alternative, hopefully simpler version for discussion. Therefore, I’d love to hear your comments.”

You can leave those comments on his own website – or by tweeting him at @richcousins.

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