The tyranny of the Tube map (or: why thinking outside the box is the only way to get somewhere)

Paul Squires
5 min readMar 9


This is the London tube map. Designed by Harry Beck in 1931, it was created in order to make the network much more understandable and readable by way of making the clarity of the map the priority, rather than geography (eg the distance between stations).

London Tube map
London Tube map © Transport for London

I talk about this map in one of my coaching classes, in the context that thinking about “old” ways doesn’t necessarily get you anywhere and that reframing can bring about surprising, positive, results.

So, we’re going to run with a little hypothesis here. I want to get from Archway in the north, to Dulwich in the south. Surely the map can tell me that.


Great. Archway is in the list of stations, in square B5. Let’s see where Dulwich is.

No Dulwich

Huh? It’s not there. How come?

Dulwich in tube and national rail map

Ah. Dulwich has three stations but none of them are run by London’s transport authority, TFL. Instead, they are in the national rail system. I’ve had to look this up in a different map which shows both TFL and rail services (I’ll return to this later).

To complete my hypothesis, getting from Archway would involve taking a Northern line tube to London Bridge, then a train in the national rail system to East Dulwich (or the same route to North Dulwich, or Archway —Northern line — KX — Victoria line to Victoria then train to West Dulwich … but let’s keep the hypothesis simple for now).

So, what the Tube map tells me is that I cannot get to Dulwich by Tube alone. That’s fine. It’s called the Tube map for a reason, surely.

London Overground as represented on the Tube map
London Overground as represented on the Tube map

Not quite.

The Tube map also contains non-Tube lines. The London Overground is a rail network that has nothing to do with the Tube, but is represented on the Tube map in orange. Similarly, the Docklands Light Railway is also not the Tube, but is represented on the map in turquoise.

This is because although the Tube map does indeed show the Tube, it actually has a much bigger context. The map is actually all of the something-on-a-railway-track services run by Transport for London.

Thameslink and Overground
Thameslink (purple dash) and Overground (orange lines)

But, it is in fact not even that. TFL has added a national rail service called Thameslink, which it acknowledges in the map is not even run by them, but appears on the Tube map.

If TFL can add Thameslink, then surely it can add all of the other services including my rail line to Dulwich, right?

If the answer is yes, then the result is the map which shows all TFL and rail services that I mentioned earlier, and looks like this:

Rail and Tube map

So, the Tube map is actually all of the something-on-a-railway-track services run by us here at Transport for London, oh, and Thameslink, for reasons that only we know.

All of these stations even share the same fare structure and transport card service (Oyster), so if I have an Oyster card and need to change from Tube to Overground to DLR to rail, it’s seamless — so there is no modal change between TFL services and non-TFL.

To summarise, if I want to get to Dulwich from Archway, then the Tube map will tell me that it’s impossible. The Tube map won’t even tell me that to find other (non-TFL) services around London, I should consult the combined TFL and rail map. At this point, one might just book an Uber.

This lack of a handoff between TFL and non-TFL services doesn’t extend to other modes of transport. In London, all of the major roads are managed by TFL and the rest by 32 local authorities. The road signs on a TFL-managed road direct travellers in that mode to non-TFL destinations.

A202 signage
Peckham High Street, via Apple Maps

This is a screenshot from Apple Maps of Peckham High Street, aka the A202, which is a TFL road. To get to Dulwich you need to turn left at the junction and take the A2215, which is a non-TFL road. Easy peasy.

Of course, you wouldn’t have a road sign which excludes the junction and eliminates the A2215, and thus preventing people from getting to Dulwich or Nunhead — that would be stupid and, frankly, would display a petty politics that doesn’t help anyone.

But that’s what we have with the Tube map.

I’m a big fan and advocate of public transport, but this article isn’t about that. It’s about overcoming limited thinking and confining use cases and hypotheses to your own department, or organisation, or indeed your own way of thinking.

Original Tube map

Harry Beck’s original Tube map is unquestionably a thing of beauty and a design classic. But, it solves a limited problem of How do we most effectively display the Tube network rather than solving How do we get people from A to B across London by public transport. The Tube map as we now see it has perpetuated that belief for almost 100 years, and while it clearly serves a purpose, it doesn’t serve purposes such as How do I get from Archway to Dulwich which are not even edge cases — they are just everyday problems. This is not necessarily TFL’s fault, but it’s old thinking carried forward without constantly re-establishing what the need for the artefact — the Tube map — really is.

To really get results out of our work, we need to really strip our needs back to basics and consider the core reasons why people do things and undertake particular tasks, rather than serving our own physical, emotional, or structural contexts. As shows, people don’t want organisational hierarchy, structure or politics to get in the way of actually getting basic needs done.

Design for every need, not just your need.



Paul Squires

Founder @imperica @pereramedia / Strategist @ibminteractive / Chair @furtherfield. Digital, media, art, politics, environment, culture, ephemera.