The Typographic Hub

The a-z atlas guide to London and the suburbs

21st August 2011

Who said women can’t read maps? On the contrary, women not only know how to read maps they can also carve out successful careers plotting, drawing, designing, marketing, and selling them. In fact one of the most remarkable of cartographic achievements was entirely inspired, conceived and executed by a woman

Alongside red buses, black cabs and Henry Beck’s diagrammatic underground map, Britain’s capital city has an equally pervasive if undervalued symbol: the A-Z London. No full-time resident, part-time employee or transient visitor of the metropolis could survive without one, and copies are found in every London home, in executive briefcases, Antipodean’s backpacks or stuffed in the glove boxes of wearied congestion zone drivers. The A-Z London is a brilliant piece of cartography whose careful execution and neat labelling makes sense of the labyrinth of unplanned roads, mews, parks, gardens, gasworks, cul-de-sacs, railway lines and canals that make up the capital. And this year, marks the centenary of its creator.

The brainchild of artist Phyllis Pearsall, the original A-Z atlas guide to London and the suburbs hit the streets in 1936; it remains one of the most ingenious examples of early 20th century information design and an iconic piece of print for London.

Phyllis Pearsall was a remarkable woman. Born in 1906 she had already lived a bohemian life as a writer, painter and traveller when in 1935 she got lost in London whilst on her way to a dinner party using a 20-year old Ordnance Survey map – the most up-to-date plan on the market. With no available means of navigating the capital Pearsall set about mapping the streets of London. Working from her bed-sit in Horseferry Road, she worked eighteen-hours a day, and walked a total of 3,000 miles mapping the 23,000 streets that comprised the first edition. As Pearsall later recalled: ‘I had to get my information by walking. I would go down one street, find three more and have no idea where I was.’

With the aid of James Duncan - a draughtsman working for her father, a Hungarian mapmaker - Pearsall conceived, designed, proof-read, indexed, sold, delivered and supervised the printing of her A-Z atlas guide to London and the suburbs. Producing the atlas was an onerous and complex task. As London was so vast, rather than create a cumbersome flat plan, Pearsall decided to divided the map into different sections each of which would be coded in an index. Once they were drawn and labelled, both the maps and index required meticulous checking for errors, inaccuracies or omissions. Even with such scrupulous checking, Pearsall realised she had failed to include Trafalgar Square!

For the visual identity of the publication Pearsall selected an Eric Gill sans serif typeface. It gave a contemporary British look to a particularly British concept and was a typographic solution generally regarded as amongst the most exciting and innovative of its day.

Completed in 1936, the guide met with almost universal indifference from the book trade. As a result, Pearsall formed her own business the Geographer’s A-Z Map Company, printed 10,000 copies of the guide, and persuaded W. H. Smith to take 250 editions on a sale-or-return basis. |Using a wheelbarrow Pearsall delivered the 250 copies in person. The guide was a runaway success, W H Smith sold out of all copies and other retailers started to place orders. But during the war, despite the increased demand from the influx of Commonwealth and American soldiers into the city, restrictions were placed on the publication of maps, and the the Geographer’s A-Z Map Company continued to be a single-handed operation.

Phyllis Pearsall’s A-Z has remained the principle guide to London ever since; it stands as a tribute to her vision and determination, and is an exemplar of modern information design. Yet Pearsall never saw herself as a designer, but as an artist and traveller who just happened to have invented a successful design concept.

However the A-Z is more than a great piece of information design and it is more than a useful guide addressing the real needs of the people who live in the city: it is history. The A-Z is a visual record of the evolution of a city, it demonstrates how London has grown, shifted and transformed, and it provides a detailed picture of the metropolis over the past 70 years. The pre-war A-Z, for example, is a perfectly preserved record of the pre-Blitz period showing areas of the city now obliterated, and parts of London now faded from memory.

In the post-war years the Company extended its range of street and road maps to include the A-Z atlases of Birmingham and Manchester. Today the Company publishes 360 titles including sheet maps and atlases in both black-and-white and full-colour. Formats range from large-scale street plans of towns and cities to small-scale road maps of the whole country. Bindings also vary and include perfect binding, traditional stitch binding, wire stitching and spiral binding. The maps are based upon Ordnance Survey mapping of assorted scales, but incorporate much updating material got by A-Z cartographers from other sources such as Department of Transport, County and Borough Councils.   

Production methods vary. Computers were introduced into the drawing process in 1991 and now all map production is wholly digital. In computer production, existing mapping is scanned and manipulated in raster format, although it is not practical to re-draw all A-Z mapping in this form and updating is carried out in vector. 

After 1945, to overcome the post-war paper restrictions in the UK, the A-Z was printed letterpress in Holland. The Dutch connection continued until the early 1960s. Nowadays, printing is entirely contracted out and the services of several printers are utilized covering different types of print, i.e. sheet fed, small format black and white, large format four colour, web-fed black and white and web-fed four colour.

In 1996 the Company produced its first electronic street map of London on CD-ROM. Today, a range of CD’s are available covering a selection of cities across the UK. Each includes a searchable index containing, in the case of London, over 90,000 streets, districts, stations, hospitals, junctions and selected places of interest. The mapping on the CD-ROM can be used on either a desktop PC and/or Pocket PC. A range of Pocket A-Z maps covering many towns and cities throughout Great Britain and designed to run on Pocket PC’s was launched in 2001, including a simple direction finder allowing the user to navigate between two locations. 2005 saw the addition of GPS tracking and the launch of the next generation of A-Z maps for mobile phones.

With only a few exceptions A-Z maps have a gazetteer. Up until the introduction of computers each street name or village name necessitated the make-up of a record card containing details of its physical location on the map together with its county and postcode. Cards were manually inserted into their alphabetical order and subsequently typeset into a page format for inclusion in the book or on the reverse of the sheet map. Computer techniques have changed this enormously and much of the tedium of this task has been removed whilst accuracy has improved. It is anticipated that in the future computers will play an ever increasing part in map-making, but training in the basic manual skills will still be required by young cartographers in order to maintain the high standards of cartography that regular users of the A-Z guides have come to expect.


Dr Caroline Archer, Reader in Typography