The Unpicking of the London Underground

The London Underground is one of the most comprehensive public transport systems in the world. Opened in 1863, the network now has 270 stations and 250 miles of track, on a daily basis ridership totals 4.8 million, or 1.34 BILLION annually.

Quite simply staggering.

However, there’s a problem. And I think this problem is badly affecting the user experience and is also weakening the Underground brand.

As a frequent user of Eurostar I’ve tried every combination of getting to StPancras from my home town of Maidenhead, and I’m really looking forward to CrossRail, or the Elizabeth Line, going live as I’ll be able to get there directly without changing trains.

Outside of rush hour, the mainline operator GWR have deemed that no one’s interested in fast rail services into London, resulting in a sufferingly long journey from Maidenhead. Having eventually arrived at Paddington, there’s the Tube journey to StPancras itself.

The most obvious route is via the Circle line, but the Circle line is no longer a circle, it’s broken. It is in fact a spiral, and this is where I first noticed something was amiss.

The "Spiral Line"

The "Spiral Line"

Previously, the Circle line really was circular in nature, no matter which station you started from, you could be certain you’d end up back there again in an uninterrupted journey. I could board a Circle line train at Paddington and be certain it would trundle around its track and arrive at StPancras a few minutes later.

However in recent years, the Circle line has been extended out westwards to Hammersmith running on the same line as the pink Hammersmith & City, and now terminates at Edgware Road rather than running straight through, as shown in my rendition of the Tube map above.

Having arrived at Paddington with heavily loaded wheelie-suitcases suitable for a visit to Paris, I’d either end up on platform 2 or platform 3 at Edgware road Underground station where the Circle line service was more often than not terminated. This was either a minor inconvenience or a major challenge, depending on which platform I arrived at. If I was lucky, it would be platform 2, in which case I could easily saunter across to platform 1 and wait for the connecting train (either Circle line or Hammersmith & City) to St Pancras. 

If I was unlucky, I’d arrive at platform 3 and have to schlep suitcases up the Victorian-era stairs as there are no escalators let alone a lift, cross the bridge and then schlep the suitcases back down another flight of stairs to platform 1 to continue the journey.

I couldn’t help but be frustrated by this nonsensical break in the journey which caused massive inconvenience for passengers, utter confusion for lost tourists whose English wasn’t their prime language, and which resulted in such a poor user experience. 

Then it tumbled, the penny dropped, and I realised that not all Circle line trains are the same. In fact not all Circle line trains are Circle line trains at all.

You can see from the older map inset in the diagram above that the green District line terminates at Edgware Road, and the old “true” Circle line carried on straight on through. This perfectly logical difference has been swept away not just on the map, but also on the trains themselves and it’s this that’s the root cause of the problem.

To explain this we first need to go back in time and look at two of the most influential characters in the development not only of the London Underground as we know it, but also of design, and service design thinking, Frank Pick and Harry Beck.

Frank Pick

Frank Pick Hon. RIBA was CEO and vice-chairman of the London Passenger Transport Board from its creation in 1933 until 1940 and is on my list of top 10 people I’d like to spend time with, were it possible. His influence went far beyond that of the underground electric railway, and his interest in design and branding went deep within the underground.

In 1908, Pick was responsible for the marketing of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL), where he’d end up as Managing Director in 1918.

Pick had a strong interest in design and its use in public life. He steered the development of the London Underground's corporate identity by commissioning eye-catching commercial artgraphic design and modern architecture, establishing a highly recognisable brand, including the first versions of the roundel and “Jackson” typeface still used today.

Under his direction, the UERL's Underground network and associated bus services expanded considerably reaching out into new areas and stimulating the growth of London's suburbs. His impact on the growth of London between the world wars led to him being likened to Baron Haussmann and Robert Moses.

He was a founding member and later served as President of the Design and Industries Association. He was also the first chairman of the Council for Art and Industry and regularly wrote and lectured on design and urban planning subjects.

Pick's design philosophy was that:

"The test of the goodness of a thing is its fitness for use. If it fails on this first test, no amount of ornamentation or finish will make it any better; it will only make it more expensive, more foolish.”

It’s this expression “the test of the goodness of a thing is its fitness for use”, combined with his working within a service provider (the London Underground provides a transportation service) that for me, places him among the greats of service design thinking.

Harry Beck

Harry Beck was an English technical or engineering draughtsman at the London Underground Signals Office. Prior to Beck’s now iconic map, the various underground lines had been laid out geographically, often superimposed over the roadway of a regular city map. This meant the centrally located stations were shown very close together and the out-of-town stations spaced far apart, leading to maps that were difficult to read and which adversely affected the user experience of the Tube network.

Beck’s three strokes of brilliance were firstly an understanding that passengers on the Underground were not concerned with geographical accuracy, they were more interested in how to get from one station to another and where to change trains  i.e. the most efficient user journey.

The second stroke of genius was to base his design on the then established design principles of an electric wiring diagram. Don’t forget that at the time he was a technical draughtsman at the Signal’s Office, so this would have been a very natural thing for him to do. Electricity wasn't universally available as it is now, it and its motifs were considered very modern, so Beck's design tapped into the Modernist zeitgeist of the time.

The third stroke of genius, which may seem trivial to some, was to use a different colour for each of the then operating lines. This added clarity to a complex map which in turn aided the user journey especially when linked to the colours of the trains themselves.

Beck first submitted his idea to Frank Pick in 1931 but (in)famously it was considered too radical because it didn't show distances relative from any one station to the others. The design was therefore rejected by the Publicity department at first, but the designer persisted. So, after a successful trial of 500 copies in 1932, distributed via a select few stations, the map was given its first full publication in 1933 (700,000 copies). The positive reaction from customers proved it was a sound design, and a large reprint was required after only one month.

Coming full circle

It’s now 2017 and all of the above is being unpicked, and maybe you can now see the brilliance of my witty blog entry title. How so? How is this being undone?

I mentioned that Beck used colours to differentiate each Tube line on his map, the current corporate colours are defined on the Pantone colour range as follows:

And in practice this is what we see on the trains – the photos below for example show the Central Line on the left, red (Pantone 485) line on the map, red fittings throughout the carriage for further clarification. On the right the Bakerloo line, brown (Pantone 470) line on map, brown fittings and fixtures throughout the train:

But what about this train? (Hint: the "Semi-fast" dot-matrix display is the giveaway for those in the know).

It is in fact a Metropolitan line train:

The Metropolitan line’s colour scheme is defined as being Pantone 235, so a purple colour on the map, but what’s inside the train? Yellow. The same colour as the Circle line (Pantone 116)! 

Psychologists tell us that cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas or values when performing an action that contradicts those beliefs, ideas, and values; or when confronted with new information that contradicts existing beliefs, ideas, and values.

It is of course the job of the service design thinker, or product manager, to remove as many instances of cognitive dissonance as possible to deliver the best possible user experience or smoothest possible user journey - a literal user journey in the example of the London Underground.

So this train is being represented simultaneously as a Circle line train AND a Metropolitan line train - but it cant be both, it has to be one or the other.... no wonder confusion abounds! But it gets worse.

Which Tube line is this?

You can’t tell from this picture – there’s lots of Circle line yellow on the fixtures and fittings, but then there are two other possibilities as indicated by the maps – the District line (Green Pantone 356) as well as the pink (Pantone 197) of the Hammersmith & City line.

And this is why my suitcase-laded journey across London was so poor. I was looking for the most readily accessible identifier of the tube trains as they pulled into Paddington – the interior colour scheme. But as all Circle line and District line trains that use Paddington are now yellow, it’s less easy to tell them apart and easier to get onto the wrong or less convenient train, resulting in a disrupted, less convenient journey. The different lines arrive at different platforms at Edgware road.

Why is this?

Why is the strong link between the colour scheme of the map being separated from the colour scheme of the trains? I can think of only one answer, and that’s the accountant, the finance team. It presumably is cheaper to buy 1000 identical carriages than it is to buy 10 lots of 100 different carriages, and it’s probably easier to manage too, as rolling stock can be readily mixed and matched.

But often it seems to me that accountants know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. How do they account for user experience? Where on the balance sheet does “fantastic user experience” go? Or brand value, for that matter? Pick’s insightfulness and deep thinking about the Underground brand as he created it is being weakened, undermined, and we the users are all the poorer for it.

Remember Pick’s design philosophy:

“The test of the goodness of a thing is its fitness for use…”

This unnecessary disruption to journeys caused by this colour confusion is rendering the Tube’s fitness for use less so. There’s such a strong link between the colourways used on Beck’s map, distribution throughout the trains and the user experience that it seems to me  foolhardy to disrupt it. These physical elements of design are key to the success of the design of the service.

However as it seems inevitable that train interiors will become a standardised, corporatised, aneathetised, homogenised Pantone 116, I humbly present to you, dear reader, my own version of the legendary London Underground map, with full apologies to Beck for my amateurish skills: