London Tube Map Sparks Furor Over What "Design" Means

A comment by Erik Spiekermann on a previous post sparks a discussion on what we talk about when we talk about design.

Of the interesting comments left on my post about Mark Noad's redesigned London Underground map, one of the most interesting was left by eminent typographer and designer Erik Spiekermann. In it, he stated what he called a "common misunderstanding" about Harry Beck's legendary wayfinding display: that it isn't a map at all, "it's a diagram. Not meant to show geographic relationships, but connections." Spiekermann criticized Noad for mixing the two concepts in his redesign, which attempted to combine Beck's clean lines with added geographic accuracy. And when tech blogger (and occasional Fast Company contributor) Tim Carmody responded to Spiekermann's comment via Twitter, Spiekermann derided him for using the word "map" again. Harrumphing and profanity ensued.

Twitter slapfights don't usually get me thinking, but this one did. Regardless of whether you think Noad's experiment is successful, interesting, ill-conceived, self-aggrandizing, or something else, his intent — like any designer's intent — was simply to create something useful. As a visual display, the London Underground diagram/map (don't hit me, Erik) has a use: to help someone see where they are and decide where they're going. That's the end; its map-ness or diagram-ness is simply the means. Matching ideal means to useful ends is "what a designer does." But if a redesign doesn't preserve the purity of the original, successful means (in this case, Beck's diagrammatic approach) does that make it an a priori failure?


[Click to view larger]

Designing is often described as "solving," but isn't it more about engaging?

I agree with Spiekermann to a point — I don't find the London Underground diagram confusing as-is, and adding "some" map-like geographic accuracy (but not "all" of it) could easily send a very conflicting message to the user about what to expect, and how to use the display. But here's the thing: the Underground diagram already does send very conflicting messages — it's constantly saying, "I look like a map, but I am not one. Psych!" And yet if you ask 100 people what the London Underground display "is," I'll bet cash money that 100 people will call it a map. Because that's its use. And if it's use-ful in that way, aren't designers' definitions about what it "is" or "isn't" simply academic?

Spiekermann (who also designed Berlin's subway diagram) is right that we "misunderstand" the London Underground diagram when we think of it as a map. But so what? If that misunderstanding makes no huge difference to its usefulness — which is probably the case for most people, who use the diagram (and think of it) in a basically maplike way and get on fine — the misunderstanding is moot, neutral, meaningless. But if that misunderstanding does make a difference — for example, makes it more difficult for a user to do what they want to do, which is see where they are and see where they're going — isn't that a shortcoming of the design, not the person? And if that misunderstanding is indeed "common," as Spiekermann says, mightn't it make sense to bring the design more in line with users' maplike expectations? Maybe, maybe not. That was what Noad was experimenting with.


[The old version. And the new...]


Noad's redesign is of questionable utility, but every redesign is: That's the point. The questioning. "Is this artifact a diagram or a map?" is an interesting question, but it's not really the question that Noad's redesign is asking. It's asking, "could an artifact that's a diagram and a map be useful?" I live in New York, where our subway display has been a map/diagram mix for decades, so I'm inclined to think "yes, it would be useful." Most native Londoners, who've been trained to think "diagrammatically" about their subway system for 80 years, might think otherwise. But that's who defines the answers (note the plural) to that "questionable utility" in the end: the users, not the designers.

Designing is often described as "solving," but isn't it more about engaging — connecting with users, conversing with them even, via these artifacts? That's not to say designers and design-observers shouldn't think critically about why artifacts "work" or not. But no design is "right," "true," or "done" for everyone at all times; the conversation will change. Applying definitions and categories and semantic hair-splitting can end conversations with users or usefully extend them. When in doubt, isn't the latter a better way to go — even if it means changing the subject?

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  • FreeFrog

    A very interesting post. I for one get tired of extremely narrow views of what good design is and arguments over semantics. I remember when design instructors would get angry when both student designers and the software industry used to refer to artwork and images as "graphics," but we all were referring to the same thing. 

    In truth, a good design isn't about "what it is" but how well it works. If people either understand the functional or artistic purpose of the design then it's successful. 

    In the design that spurred this discussion, I definitely consider it a transit diagram.

  • Pcoitinho

    I can tell all of you what the discussion is about:

    The tube map is the most iconic piece of information design in history.

    Don't take it from me. Read Richard Hollis "Graphic Design, a concise history", as Spiekerman himself or any designer here in the UK.

    I have nothing against the redesign, but the moment I saw it, I knew this discussion was coming.

    Less is more sometimes, and it is really hard to get designers to understand that (me included). Most times we want to create, regardless if it is needed or not.

    There is no use of knowing the absolute distances between tube stops, specially in a place without a grid-like structure such as London. What would the use of having that geographical overlay?

  • MegaWave MultiMedia

    When two choices will not suffice, and are in conflict, a third is required. How about a new form we shall name a "Mapogram", or alternatively, the more obscure version, the "Diagraphic". ( Don't you love the way the internet underlines new, creative words in red? )

  • Horndog

    It's a "wayfinding" device. Done.

    Don't we have more important ills in this world to worry about? 

  • Bimma

    Isn't it high time TFL started looking into interactive London tube map when you're at a station? So You click on a station and you can see options for what you can see if you get off at that station from monuments, prominent buildings, sites to see, shops and history of that area.

  • Matthew Cantwell

    Wow! Beauty in simplicity.

    Who gives a hoot - map, diagram, whatever.  Would it be a "mapkin" if it were printed on thin absorbent paper and folded?  ... anyway...

    This design inspired me to lay out my resume / work history as a transit map (or diagram if you prefer.) Check out  i even have links to Boston and Chicago.

    Yes, to most people if it gives a rough sense of direction - then it is a map.

  • Craig Ward

    Spiekermann, as ever, should take a step back and stop hero-worshipping. Beck's map/diagram is a wonderful piece of design but isn't papally infallible. The distances between stops were distorted to allow him to achieve his vision of simplicity. The result is something more useful to someone going across town but less useful to someone walking around who may not realise how close - or otherwise - some of the stops are to one another geographically speaking. So in that respect, Noad's map is more successful. Less iconic, but then it's communicating more information. It depends what flavour you like your design.

  • lee de cola

    reminds me of ads i remember about whether Certs is a breath or a candy mint...

  • Mark Monteiro

    No one will ever put this new design on a t-shirt. Or, they may, but no one will every wear it. I take one look at it and want to grab a taxi.

  • Edward Tierney

    Arguing semantics is a lose-lose situation.  Focusing on the outcome, as Mr. Pavlus has suggested, at least provides a means of assessing the utility and value of an artifact. 
    When discussing the value, or use, in this case of the redesigned tool, it is important to note what this tool is used for.  It allows people to navigate our built environment by integrating spatial orientation and cognitive mapping. Thus Mr. Pavlus has hit the nail squarely on the head, it is up to the users to determine viability and improvement.  Everyone else can go on arguing tomato/tomato, potato/potato.

  • Peter Jacobson

    Since I like a good debate... I might if pressed, put this between a diagram and a map. It has features of both. Is a diagram an inferior map or does it have to be purely non-representative? The London tube map isn't purely symbolic or non-geographic, is it? Well.. it's up there! 

    Don't most major metro plans suffer the same limits as this one? The NYC subway one was recently revised to make Manhattan look a bit oddly wide and out of proportion. Is its streets info enough info for real place finding? And do any metro maps show the real underground rail routes? 

    Perhaps London has less than ideal walking from the get go. Spiekermann's right, there's been a potentially unpleasant disconnect between tube and walking navigation in London. Whatever we call it, I would count this revision as an improvement then.     

  • vickytnz

    I'm suprised no one has mentioned the original political intent of the tube map — to get people using the tube. Right from the start there were comments about how it made the connections clear at the expense of distance, and how what looked like a short trip could be far longer (and vice versa).

  • John Bull

    Building on Spiekermann AND Robinson's points, it is worth remembering that one of the major successes of Beck's Map is that it manages to meet the objectives of two very distinct audiences - the regular user and the casual traveller.The regular user doesn't generally look to the Map to tell them the fastest route between two geographic points above ground - they look to it for guidance as to the route between two points within the network itself. To liberate a modern term, they've already "hacked" the system - they already know that Covent Garden and Holborn are within walking distance, they just want to know  which of those two stations is easier to get to from wherever they happen to be right now.The casual traveller, on the other hand, is in unfamiliar territory, surrounded by lots of rushing people and scared about making a wrong decision. For them, it's rarely the fastest route between A and B that matters - they just want something that looks as simple and risk-free as possible. They have no desire to go mulit-modal either.That's ultimately why the Map (which is really a diagram, as Spiekermann says, but in this case I think it deserves a bye) is effective, and what a lot of the attempts to bring geography back into the equation forget - because somehow it manages to address a good percentage of both those user's needs.Not saying attempts to redesign it aren't worthwhile, just that to a certain extent I feel they often fail to properly model the differing ways that the vast majority of people use the Map (consciously or not) on a daily basis.

  • Micheil Smith

    Having just moved to london from australia, I would have to say that Noad's design (map-ish) is far more useful than the current design (diagram) as it gives a better idea of the actual distance between stations. 

    Occasionally I've gotten of at the wrong station and looked at the tube diagram and gone "oh, they're close, so I'll just walk", and it's turned out to actually be a good half mile or so walk, that's not so cool if you're also carrying a load of other gear with you.

  • Splotch

    In the context of the user of the Underground it is perfectly valid to describe it as a map. I would not use an Ordnance Survey map to navigate the London Tube System or a geological survey map either. The Tube map is simple because the world it represents has no need for representations of mountains or physical distance. Every map is defined by its title, in this case 'London Underground Map' is perfectly valid IMO.  

  • Katy L

    The London Underground map/diagram 'simply works' so let's stick with it. The whole system is based on a very straightforward question of "are you traveling north or south, east or west?". In my mind, there is no place for diagonals in this concept.

    In terms of art, go for your life. But this is not a practical application for every day travelers and tourists.

    And in response to Erik's comment below about not showing people around London, when I walk in London it is the tube map I have in my head for general orientation (do I want to head north, south, east or west?) and rarely a street map in my hand.

    If it ain't broke, don't fix it!