Design in the UK: the tube, the plug, and more

On Tuesday afternoon, after our adventure through Hyde Park, I returned to the park to check out the Serpentine Gallery’s display on Christo and Jeanne-Claude. I’d never visited at all, so I decided to continue on to Kensington Gardens, and the beautiful grounds of Kensington Castle. Suddenly, I realized that I still had a few hours of daylight left. I checked Google Maps to see what was going on in this new area. I found a museum with an intriguing name: the Design Museum. I walked into the museum at 4, and it closed at 4:45, but in those 45 minutes, I found one of my favorite museums of all time, which gave me a whole new way to describe what I love so much about London.

I was only at the Design Museum for less than an hour on Tuesday, but my visit helped me understand that design has become one of my passions on this trip. One of my favorite parts of being located in a different country has been noticing all the little design differences—from the different plugs to the beautiful design of the UK railway system, especially the London Underground.

The entire city of London has a feeling of consistency, at least for me. When in London, I always felt aware of the fact that I was there, in one of the world’s finest cultural centers, I recognized it as a city with a rich past, a diverse culture, and a rich future. This starts with the design of the very littlest things in London. Principally, the London Underground, which was the main way I got around while I was in London.


The very first time you ride the London Underground, or “tube”, you are bound to encounter a London Underground map. These maps are clean, easy to read, and introduce you effectively to the visual design signatures of the TfL (Transport for London) brand: the futuristic font, the clarity of design. It almost reminded me of something Apple’s Jony Ive, the mastermind behind sleek designs like the iPod and iPhone, would design. (This link will take you to the full tube map, to give you an idea of what I’m talking about).

At the Design Museum, I found out that the design of these maps–so clear and easy to read–was actually based on design principles proposed by a man named Harry Beck, who was not high-up in the administration, but whose idea was so good that it was taken up by the city. The map does not accurately reflect the geography of London–it distorts it so that the map is easier to read. Beck thought up a design based on electrical circuits, and it has stuck to this day. The only real signifier of London’s geography on the map is the River Thames.

Riding the tube is an experience that revolves around the map. For example, the tube map assigns colors to each line: the Central Line is red, Bakerloo is brown, Northern is black, District and Circle (which run alongside one another in downtown London) are green and yellow. The visual signifiers of these colors are not on the outside of the train cars–those are simply blue, red, and gray. However, they are on the inside. This week, I discovered that a Circle/District train had green and yellow flecks on the floor, representing the trains’ map colors. A Bakerloo train had a brown strip at the top of its seats, representing its map colors. These design flourishes help connect all the elements of the tube design to one another.

The design of the London Underground, while outstanding, is not entirely flawless. I only learned that this morning, when I noticed the garish color combination on display at the Piccadilly Circus Station. The station’s walls feature a design in forest green, deep burgundy, and chocolate brown. However, one station with a poorly chosen color combination doesn’t undo the majesty of the rest of the Underground’s design.


The other visual signature of TfL–the Johnston font–is also on display here. The UK roadway signs use a similarly forward-looking font called Transport, whose design was also illuminated by the Design Museum. Apparently, the UK roadway signs were among the first to use a mixture of capital and lowercase letters, instead of all-caps. As can be seen in the design of London Underground maps, the success of this design adaptation has eventually carried over to the tube.

There is one design difference between the US and UK that frustrated me, however, the two different plugs used in each country. Throughout the trip, I was frustrated by the UK plug. It seemed cumbersomely large, I didn’t understand why it featured one part of the plug that was just a plastic piece, and it was of course annoying to use an adapter constantly.

However, this four-minute video changed all that for me. It explained that British plugs actually have extensive safety features built into them that American plugs do not have. For one thing, they are childproof–their design does not allow children to touch the live pats of the plug while it is lugged in, or to stick their fingers into the sockets and electrocute themselves. As a kid, I remember my parents putting covers on the electric sockets in case we touched them. In England, there is no need for that, because the sockets themselves are covered unless something has triggered the top, or “earth” plug.  For another thing, they include a feature that ensures human safety in case of plug damage–which is that the live wire inside the plug (the one that would electrocute a person if removed from its place) has slack, so that it is less likely to be removed.

A similar difference I came across was the British keyboard. I actually encountered it first in a Scottish Apple store, then again while using the keyboard at the Cambridge Library. The British keyboard features an extended enter key, as well as buttons for 3 different money symbols (euro, pound, and dollar). The one I used at Cambridge also had the @ symbol in a different spot on the right side of the keyboard, but the Mac keyboard in Scotland kept the @ symbol above the number 2.

On-screen, you can see the American keyboard.

I also saw some other cool things at the Design Museum. There was an exhibit on advances in technology, including a section on music technology that really caught my eye. They had a film on the difficulties of reconciling design with environmental conservation; an exhibit showing how companies like Ikea brought acclaimed designs to the masses, while Louis Vuitton brought popular designs to the runway; and an exhibit on Zaha Hadid’s groundbreaking designs. Additionally, I found all of these fascinating exhibits in a single gallery–the only one, as far as I could tell, that was available to the public for free. What an incredible museum. I hope I can find another one like it when I go back home to Chicago.

That’s been another effect of this trip on me. I know that people say that tourists should “think like a local” in order to fit in. However, when I get home, I want to think like a tourist more. Last year, I did some exploring of the MSU campus’s wonders–like the Broad Art Museum–for the first time. However, I want to do more. Plus, I almost never explore the wonders that Chicago has to offer me. If we all thought like a tourist a little bit, maybe we could discover gems like the Design Museum in our own neighborhoods.

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