Look, No Grid! NYC Reimagined As A Circular Metropolis

Mapmaker Max Roberts ditches New York’s linear grid for concentric circles in this new subway map.

Max Roberts really likes maps. Trained as a cognitive psychologist and a lecturer at the University of Essex, he began cultivating an immense knowledge of transit maps nearly 15 years ago, even writing a book on the subject. At some point, he thought he’d give design a try.

His original designs aim to challenge conventional map dogma, a lot of which he says are outdated. Rather than emphasize straight lines, clean angles, and geographical accuracy, Roberts’ maps embody a more nuanced approach to mapping, one that combines aesthetics with usability.

When he unveiled a map of the London underground last year, Roberts says he stumbled on a “completely new way of designing maps.” The scheme seemed to break the first rule of map-making: only straight lines, no circles ever. Now, Roberts has applied the same strategy to a completely different city: New York.

The London graphic completely rehauled the Tube map to accommodate the city’s newly completed Orbital rail link. “A lot of people were saying that a good way to publicize this and emphasize orbital rail connectivity would be to create maps based upon concentric circles,” Roberts tells Co.Design. When speculative designs materialized, he found them wanting and playfully took on the challenge. The results freely warped London’s geographical features to adapt to the new geometry. The map is tightly structured, “forcing a chaotic city network into an unprecedented level of organization.”

With New York, Roberts was forced to work with the shape of the city’s irregular landscape. That meant extensively reconfiguring each of the boroughs according to the fanlike array of subway lines. Manhattan is drawn like an arrow, with Lower Manhattan occupying island’s attenuated tip. The Bronx is slotted in between Manhattan and Queens like a jigsaw piece, while the southerly regions of Brooklyn resemble the arc of an AK-47 magazine. The ice-cream-cone outline of Governors Island appears as a small orb floating in the river. Roberts explains:

I could get Lower Manhattan nice and compact, emphasising the close proximity of the stations, but at the same time the rest of the map could breathe…that fan effect might be wrong geographically, but it gives me a lovely spacious and balanced design, where good use is made of all the space.

Meanwhile, the elastic circuitry of the city’s subway tracks are straightened and normalized. The abundance of the criss-crossed streak of color is inherently difficult to work with, but Roberts sufficiently tames them to suit his purposes, achieving an overall effect of taut order. The scheme arguably improves the legibility of the lines, even if the map itself is not entirely immediately practical.

But it doesn’t have to be. Key to Roberts ideas is a distinction between geography and diagram: “Every city should produce an outstanding geographical map and an outstanding diagram,” he says. The scenario would give users two points of reference, and it would be up to them to choose which best applies to the situation. For Roberts, the former is effective in telling you “where the network is,” while the latter spells out the logic underpinning that network.

That might seem to complicate things, with subway riders inevitably aligning with one and letting the other writhe in obscurity. It shouldn’t surprise that Roberts does not agree. “A map that encourages study encourages use, so that people are less likely to give up and ask for help, and the more they use the map the more they are going to learn about the network, making them more likely to be self-sufficient and resourceful.“

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  • cassette_walkman

    To Quote Max Roberts: “A map that encourages study encourages use, so that people are less likely to give up and ask for help, ..."

    Well, so long as the design interpretation of this statement gives us a map that doesn't REQUIRE study to understand it and get what we need out of it. Functionality is the overriding priority with a map and aesthetic comfort, readability, is paramount. But so is physical environmental orientation. A tricky balancing act.

    The overiding function of a map is to give you the answer or directions you. To answer: "I am here. Where is it that I want to go and how do I get there?". Secondarily, in the situation of a subway system, it should immediately tie in with the actual physical experience - signage, colours numbers and other semiotics - to allow you to develop an intuition for the directions and system as fast as possible. Tertiarily, it should allow you to place yourself in the actual world. Know 'where' you are at any given time.

    Max implies that one of the functions of his maps is to encourage identity of the network and identity of the map. This should come last. It should come intrisically as a result of the design decisions of the actual functional concerns of the map.

  • loxmyth

    Maps are primarily about communications. When aesthetics removes communications, it is no longer a map.

    To New Yorkers, absolute distances and relative positions do matter. New Yorkers still remember how to walk. The reworked map fails those needs badly.

    Possibly useful for tourists who don't ever intend to do more than go into one hole in the ground and come out of another. Not useful for anyone who cares about getting anywhere that isn't directly on top of a station.

  • loxmyth

    I'm being "serious" only because I've seen some professors of visual communications who forget that the graphic has to interact with the real world beyond the narrow definition of what it depicts. In particular, over on BoingBoing there was a character who was hugely enthusiastic about how much easier this map makes it to determine your route from one station to another -- which is true -- but who was being dismissive about the fact that this tells you nothing about which stations are near what in the real world.

    If your interest is in the subway system in isolation, without concerns about time or real-world distance or what's outside any of those stations, this is indeed a brilliant redrawing of the network. And it's certainly pretty. So as art or abstract view it's a great success, and it does show what can be done when you're willing to give up constraints. Having this *alongside* the traditional subway map might be worthwhile.

    Or might not. It doesn't show those places where it'd be faster to walk than to connect. Boston mostly posts an abstracted map, and it took me years to figure out how the locations on that map actually corresponded to above-ground directions and distances and to realize that rather than waiting for and changing trains twice I could walk two blocks. They're starting to provide real-world maps of the area immediately around the station you're in, and there *is* a paper map you can get which overlays the subway system on a street map, but that's made me a bit skeptical of the value of abstractions as a guide to physical travel.

    What I'd really love is if the advantages of this map and the street-oriented map could somehow be combined. I don't see a way to do it, but I had to throw out the challenge.

    So, yeah, I'm serious. Not necessarily solemn, though.

  • disqus_A1KWTfnqry

    Except that...because of the white space and clarity, Roberts' map seems to emphasize the more outer stations of the system, which is where fewer riders (on the whole) are traveling to.  In fact, most system riders are heading into midtown and downtown Manhattan, which on this map are kind of squished inwards.  Yes, if I want to go to Middletown Road on the 6 line, this map makes it clear as crystal...but if I'm heading into downtown Manhattan, it feels like I'm descending into inner circles of Hell, or at least obfuscation.  One could as well devise a map that emphasizes stations/routes based on, say, their average usage over the past 10 or 20 years.  Which would make a lot of people angry, but would be just as logical.  (And this from someone who lived in Brooklyn for 10 years and knows the city fairly well.)