Max Roberts: the master of the circular metro map


It's no secret that Umbrella loves everything about metro systems – especially the maps that document them. Psychologist and cartographer Max Roberts feels the same way, and uses his skills to improve the design of metro diagrams, arranging them in circular forms to ease legibility. Over the last couple of years he's worked on versions of the London, New York, Moscow – and for Umbrella – Liverpool undergrounds. Here he tells Umbrella about metros, overcoming geography and Britain's peculiar obsession with maps of all kinds.

This article appears in Issue Nine of Umbrella

We first noticed your work with your circular map on the London Underground. Tell us about it…
Someone else had a go with one and I wasn’t very impressed with it. It’s all about the new London Overground connection. People were saying we have a new orbital link and we need a map to reflect that. The map I saw on Londonist had made the Circle Line a pure circle in central London, and the whole map goes wrong if you do that. 

The Circle is much longer than it is tall, so when you start crushing to a circle you mess with the geography. Also, the British love horizontal type – other countries have it in any direction – but in Britain has to be horizontal. You’re not just crushing geography, your bashing all the station names into each other, too. He’d taken circles and the standard Henry Beck rules. If you want circles you’re not bothered about angles and the map wasn’t integrating the orbital and vertical very well. The only straight lines a circle are interested in are spokes. 

You’re a psychologist by trade, how do maps fit in?
There’s a lot of psychology here. I started collecting maps when I was four or five years old. I had a hobby alongside my psychology, then in the mid 2000s I had the opportunity to merge them. 

Your most recent work is of the New York CIty subway. That must have presented some difficult challenges…
It’s got a big block of coast for a start – London’s not a coastal city. Also New York has this “invisible” state of New Jersey next to it which doesn’t exist as the map is concerned.

That’s odd, as areas like Hoboken are nearer to Manhattan than much of Brooklyn and Queens, aren’t they?
Yes, it’s because in the USA the states are very fragmented – completely different in the way that the Netherlands and belgium are. The structure of the network is different, too there’s no real orbital route. When I started, I didn’t think it would work at all. 

So it was a big challenge?
I’ve mapped New York before and I know where the difficult bits are. At the bottom of Manhattan there’s lots of stations and I’d rather slit my throat than have a station name cross a line. There’s a difficult part in Brooklyn, too – directly east from the bottom of Manhattan you get to a whole tangle of red, green, yellow and orange lines. That bit’s horrible. Once you’ve got those two areas right, the rest of the map falls into place.

Your brought Staten Island into your circle, too – and it just fits…
Yes, you can’t break your own design rules, it ruins the coherence of the map. It’s actually not bad geographically, St George is pretty level with 59th St in Brooklyn, though the Staten Islanders might be upset as it’s about the same size as Manhattan in real life. 

Have you had interest from the official transport authorities?
London’s very defensive, they wish I didn’t exist, but the MTA in New York contacted me and asked about licensing the map for T-shirts and tourist souvenirs. 

Why do people love these urban maps?
There’s a childhood thing – you can travel on public transport, these maps stand for liberation. And then a good map is a thing of beauty. The Brits love their maps. There’s probably as many maps hanging on the walls being beautiful as there are in people’s pockets doing work. The structure of the lines and the way they interact – lots of abstract shapes. There’s something about these that draws people in. 

What are your favourite maps?
The early new York  subway maps were dramatic. henry becks send me forward. The old Paris Metro map from the 1950s and ’60s was one of the best maps ever designed. the Moscow Metro from the ’70s where they just had a circle with straight lines which broke every Beck rule in the universe but worked extremely well. 

Find out more about Max at


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