Signs in London

Legible london and urban design

A London-wide pedestrian wayfinding system has been developed by Transport for London (TfL). Since its first trial in 2007, Legible London has grown into an instantly-recognisable feature of the capital’s streetscape. It is also an outstanding example of applied environmental psychology.

Even if we do not know its name, most Londoners are familiar with the distinctive blue ‘liths’. Less apparent is the amount of primary research that was required to develop Legible London from an initial concept into a city-wide mapping brand.

Interestingly, another (more famous) map hastened the need for Legible London. Currently 25 per cent of visitors to London navigate solely using the Underground map. While undoubtedly an attractive map, it is not geographically accurate. This encourages short Tube trips, at the expense of walking. While Max Gill’s Wonderground map of 1914 may have been (relatively) geographically accurate, one would hardly consider it to be a serious navigational aid.

Underground capacity does not come cheap; it is much more cost-effective to enable walkable Tube journeys to be made on foot. In 2006, TfL’s own research found that 57% of Londoners would walk more if there was better wayfinding information available. This, coupled with the 32 different signage systems then in use, meant there was an opportunity for a consistent, well-informed pedestrian wayfinding system.

Central to the £1m+ research that led to Legible London was the concept of mental mapping. This is the process by which our brains build up maps of routes, places and landmarks. The stronger the mental map, the more confident a person will be when navigating the city.

Legible London had to be congruent with the way our minds work. This is reflected in the design of the maps.

  • They are heads-up maps; this means they are orientated in direction of travel; not north-south
  • Landmark buildings are marked in yellow; major ones are yellow and rendered in 3D
  • Distances are expressed in terms of minutes’ walk, not x-metres.

Legible London's mapping liths
There is insufficient space here to go into the extensive series of research undertaken. For a detailed (and very engaging) explanation, the reader is encouraged to read TfL’s excellent publication The Yellow Book. Following 2007 prototyping and pilot studies in 2009, the system became Business as Usual in 2010. It also won a prize at the Society for Experiential Graphic Design awards that year.

Legible London is fascinating because of its ability to empower people, granting them the freedom of the city. By providing clear, consistent, city-wide mapping, people are able to strengthen their mental maps considerably. It shows that London need not be limited to the immediate vicinity of Underground stations; the urban fabric (particularly in central London) is continuous and eminently walkable. The system is fundamentally attractive, well-informed and it would not be unreasonable to expect it to be up there with Mr Beck’s map as a future cartographic icon of London.

For further information, please visit TfL or email