Beck/Sutnar:Compare/Contrast

Harry Beck, Official Map Design for the London Underground Subway System, 1933

Ladislav Sutnar and K. Lonberg-Holm, page from book "Catalog Design Progress: Advancing Standards in Visual Communication", published by Sweet's Catologue Service, 1950

Harry Beck’s map for the London Underground subway system, designed in 1933, famously took liberties with the city’s geography and with the relational density of Tube stations.  What was sacrificed in geospatial accuracy was more than made up for in legibility and crystallization of the Tube network to a bare minimum of information that would enable riders to navigate the underground system successfully.  His use of bold color-coding for rail lines is believed to be inspired by the customary palette of electrical schematic drawings (he was an electrical draughtsman rather than a cartographer by trade), and his reduction of London’s snaking rail lines to a grid system is said to reflect Beck’s study of plans for London’s sewer system.  One can definitively identify Beck’s bold colors, stark symbols, heavy use of white space, and imposition of a grid system onto a more chaotic visual reality, with Modernism at its fervent best, in its quest to reduce untidy reality to its purest formal essence.

Likewise, Ladislav Sutnar’s design for the above page, from his book Catalog Design Progress: Advancing Standards in Visual Communication (made in collaboration with Knud Lonberg-Holm and published in 1950 by their employer, Sweet’s Catalog Service), reveals his own Modernist and Constructivist fervor for absolute clarity coupled with a dynamic and visually seductive flow of information.  This single page from Sutnar’s oeuvre typifies his love for bold geometric blocks of saturated, warm hues (reds, oranges, yellows) against generous white space, accented by crisp sans serif type and dynamic lines.  Both Sutnar’s and Beck’s designs make use of the Modernist grid system, in which lines are chiefly straight, and occur at 90- or 45-degree angles to one another (and, in the case of Sutnar’s diagrams, at even intervals between 90- and 45-degrees).  Both also employ generous white space, providing an uncluttered “ground” which focuses the user’s attention on the stark graphics set against it.  The dark gray circles on Sutnar’s orange chart become focal “bullet-points”, much like the heavily-weighted diamond shapes Beck uses to signify Tube stations.  Both tropes speak to Modernism’s obsession with pure geometric forms, and with the reassuring sense of order conveyed by the standardized repetition of such forms.  Though Sutnar theorized his use of such elements more explicitly than did Beck, both designs evince a search for immediately recognizable symbols (large circles of a certain color, diamond shapes framed in heavy, brightly colored lines) which would lend themselves to standardization and repeated use, and, as such, would effectively “brand” the product/service they represented.

One point that undeniably differentiates Sutnar from Beck is Sutnar’s artistic genius, born equally of a strong art and design education, personal talent, and immersion in New York’s fertile design scene at the middle of the 20th Century. Beck had no training in the arts, and his goal both as electrical draughtsman and map-maker can best be understood as functional clarity.  Sutnar’s breadth and versatility of designs reveal an idiosyncratic visual style and curiosity that transcend the rigorous functionality of his designs.

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