When Harry Beck designed the now-classic London Underground map in 1931, he surely had no idea that it would someday be used to help banks make woolly regulatory information easier to decipher. But this year, Beck’s map did just that.
The design firm Electronic Ink, which specializes in business systems, used the familiar Tube map as a model for a flowchart that illustrates a new federally mandated approval process for financial products. Financial information is complex and boring. A dense, footnote-filled document would put entire conference rooms to sleep. But with Beck's map as a guide, a difficult process becomes eminently simpler to navigate. "What business lacks is an image-based environment," Electronic Ink CEO Harold Hambrose tells Co.Design. "There’s truth to the idea that a picture helps you understand words. People will have different interpretations of a prose document, but you can’t argue with a picture."
After the economic meltdown of 2008, the U.S. government mandated changes in how banks develop and launch new financial products. Electronic Ink was charged with redesigning the process of adhering to these mandates for one of the largest multinational financial services corporations (which forbade Electronic Ink from revealing its name). "The new process involved a lot of transferring from point A to point B," Hambrose says. "It sounded like moving things through a complex system—much like the movement of people through a subway."
Based on these descriptions, Electronic Ink was inspired to use the London Underground map as the model for its redesign. They mapped out the process using white bubbles to indicate "stops"—various steps in the development process—and colored lines to indicate how you get from one step to another. Depending on your choices within the system, you can be rerouted to new places, or you can make an express trip to the end of the process.
With this London Underground-inspired flowchart, "regulators from the outside can come in and understand the entire landscape of how regulation will be met by this bank," Hambrose says.
Electronic Ink has experience choosing surprisingly apt visual metaphors for how businesses work. In one project, designers used an obscure system of dance notation from 18th-century France as a model for visualizing the workings of a hospital’s Rapid Response Team. "The movement of the team around the hospital was comparable to choreography," Hambrose says. The diagrams Electronic Ink create might seem confusing to the general public—they're not meant for mass consumption, unlike more standard infographics or data visualizations. But for those within an organization or an industry, they often prove invaluable, as they shed light on the relationships between the people, technologies, and processes with which they work.