OPINION9 February 2017

The mental map

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Behavioural economics Impact Opinion Public Sector UK

Rory Sutherland compares the way we misunderstand the map of the London Underground to how we view economic theory today.

London Underground little man_crop

One of the most widely admired maps is that of the London Underground – though, technically, it is not a map at all; it is a schematic diagram. Its designer, Harry Beck, was an electrical engineer and the ‘map’ owes a great deal to electrical wiring diagrams. 

Beck’s genius lay in deciding what to leave out; he concluded that people were less interested in the geographical fidelity of the map and principally wanted to know how the different stations and lines related to one another. So he produced a ‘map’ that was faithful to the layout of the network, but which was a complete distortion of geographical reality. 

In central London, stations are typically much closer together than in the suburbs. Beck ignored this distinction in the interests of clarity. This can cause problems: the most common tube journey undertaken by tourists to London is that between Covent Garden and ...