I apologize to all both my readers for the trainspotter-ish nature of my recent posts. I'll wrap up my thoughts on this topic today and I promise not to write about trains and maps again for at least a couple of months:

It's impossibile to say that one map or diagram is better than another without considering how well it serves its users. A subway system diagram can utterly distort the distance from one point to another, but succeed very well at helping people to decide where to change trains.

(1) H.C. Beck – a genius at putting himself in the shoes of his users

Much to the chagrin of my fellow passengers on the number 63 bus, I have recently been reading the excellent book "Mr. Beck's Undereground Map," on my way to work. At almost 27cm X 24cm it belongs on a coffee table rather than in the hands of a bus passenger. But it's a beautifully made chronicle of Mr. Henry C. Beck's obsessive desire to make the London Underground diagrams more useful to passengers.

At times, Mr. Beck struggled with interference from senior managers in his organization who insisted on designs that rendered the map less clear than was Beck's original concept. But throughout his efforts, Beck "was continually putting himself in the position of the traveller — especially one who was unfamiliar with the Underground network – and trying to see the Diagram with an innocent eye."

"The designer's function in this field is not to supply a quick fix but to be prepared to embark on a long haul …. and that what might appear at first sight to be a brilliant, stylish piece of design in the opinion of graphic designers may fail miserably when subjected to the harsher verdict of public opinion"

(Quotations from "Mr. Beck's Undereground Map." – by Ken Garland)


Anyone who has been inolved in the design of a web site or a brochure will recognize the challenge that Beck faced — satisfying the senior managers in the company who had their own misguided visions of how things should look while constantly putting himself in the shoes of the inexperienced user. How many corporate communications fall into the trap of explaining things in ways that only an "insider" can understand?

(2) Massimo Vignelli  – wanted New York subway users to do things his way

I feel very impertient here, as I poke some criticism at a genius – Massimo Vignelli. Yes. He's the guy who created the iconic American Airlines logo and many other gorgeous examples of modern design:


But in 1972, Massimo Vignelli designed a new diagram for the New York subway system, which was flatly rejected by its target audience. If you rent a DVD of the movie "Helvetica," you will have a chance to see a fascinating interview with Mr. Vignelli (one of the "extra" bits after the main movie), in which he describes his ill-fated design for the 1972 NY Subway Diagram.


Thirty six years after the event, it is clear that he still hasn't recovered from the rejection. (Perhaps there's something about subway maps that inspires this kind of obsession). He seems to think that his only mistake was to give some indication of the geography (Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn) — "Otherwise it’s perfect. I think it’s the most beautiful spaghetti work ever done…" (laughs)

I think that the flaw in this design is more fundamental. He believed too strongly in his vision of how passengers should use the map – while ignoring what passengers actually wanted:

"One of the problems they had in New York, is that the people – they couldn’t relate the geography …. with the lines and they were confused by that. But, it’s just because they shouldn’t"

I had to laugh when I heard this. I'm sure he isn't the first designer to think that he knows better than the users. But in this case, its quite pointless to tell millions of New Yorkers what they should or shouldn't want. The people of New York didn't want Vignelli's diagram.

Do New Yorkers' needs differ from those of Londoners who welcomed Harry Beck's simplified vision of London? Perhaps they do. And perhaps its because the city of New York (at least, most of Manhattan) is more logically laid out than London. With such an inherently logical street plan, perhaps people don't need or want a diagram that seeks to impose an artificial sense of order onto the geography?

Another amusing snippet from the Massimo Vignelli interview:

"Now the reality is that 50% of humanity is visually oriented. And 50% of humanity if verbally oriented. So the visually oriented people have no problem reading any kind of map – including, you know, road maps. And the verbal people, they can never read a map…..

But the verbal people have one great advantage over the visual people. They can be heard! And that’s why they changed this map. They started to complain, these people…. until the beautiful map was substituted by the junky one that you can see now by going in every subway station. It is a map that’s loaded with information that’s so difficult to retrieve that it makes the whole map… useless."

He's brilliant. I am going to add him to my list of people I would like to meet.

(3) We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are.- Anaïs Nin

I don't think she was thinking of "information design" or "usability" when she wrote that, but it struck me as a good way to finish this post.

I criticized Massimo VIgnelli for wanting ordinary people to use his map in the way he feels they should use it. That seems so impossible to me. However, I am fascinated by his comment that people absorb information and ideas in different ways. Perhaps "visual people" and "verbal people" is a neat way to summarize this idea.

And, much as I dislike those Tokyo maps which never show North at the top, I have to concede that they do a good job at supporting those Japanese people who want to see things that way. They're the ones who always rotate their guidebooks in their hands as they navigate a new city… Who am I to disagree and tell them that they shouldn't do that?