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Everyday design: the genius of the London tube map

#TEDx #Smallthingbigidea

Recently, we came across a TED talk given by designer and critic Michael Beirut which looks at how effective design was used as a solution to a practical problem.

In the short video, he talks about how the design of the London underground map came about, a reimagining of the original geographically-accurate (but somewhat complicated) map by engineering draftsman Harry Beck, in 1931. The rationale behind his new, schematic layout, was to provide greater focus and simplicity for commuters, helping them get easily from station-to-station underground, rather than representing what was going on above ground. Commuters didn’t need all the detail that the original map provided. If anything, it provided information overload.

Beirut’s commentary reveals the story of how the map was thought out and constructed and also highlights the nature of how design evolves over time. Despite its label, the London tube map isn’t really a map – it’s a colour coded diagram which has since become an iconic image, variously explored and expanded on by both artists and designers. The video is posted below and worth a watch.

Designers, by nature, are constantly looking to problem solve, and they use past design principles as part of that creative process. Five years ago, psychologist and map collector Max Roberts carried an exercise that further explored this type of geometric design.

He reimagined the tube map using concentric circles that share the same common axis. Where Beck’s original tube map used horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines, the circular structure introduced by Roberts suggests a more fluid representation of space, perhaps more akin to the true nature of the city, taking into consideration aesthetics as well as usability.

Beck’s design was innovative in that it was designed for the people, and the importance of user interface in design is at the core of creative thinking today more than ever. Massimo Vignelli, designer of the New York subway map, has three design principles (semantics, syntactics and pragmatics) and suggests that meaningful modern design is created by focusing on the meaning, construction and communication of each project; being mindful of who your audience is and for what purpose you are designing.

By looking back to the evolution of the tube map, we can see how these principles have developed over time, suggesting that truly effective design is not just aesthetically pleasing but also employed with meaning. A view with which we fully agree.