Underground Diagrams (Book Review)

Book coversA review of
Vignelli Transit Maps
By Peter B. Lloyd and Mark Ovenden

Underground Maps Unravelled: Explorations in Information Design
By Maxwell J. Roberts

Around the world, millions of people rely on diagrams to aid them in navigating subways. Technically speaking, these diagrams are often not maps. Yet these examples of mass rapid transit information design and visualization are now accepted techniques of providing travelers with just-in-time assistance. The general public and professionals from many disciplines should celebrate the challenges and achievements of their usable, useful, and appealing designs.

In 1977, I organized one of the first-ever subway diagram exhibits displaying global examples at the American Institute of Graphic Arts in New York City. Many decades later, two excellent books are available that explore the history of these diagrams in general, and those of one noted design firm in particular.

Underground Maps Unravelled is a detailed and fairly complete discussion of subway diagrams. It records their emergence in London’s Underground at the beginning of the twentieth century in the sketches of Henry Beck, an engineer. It also describes their evolving conventions over decades of experimentation, some eventual industry standards, the challenge of international use, and occasionally playful ornamentation of fundamentally functional visual communication media.

The author examines the minutiae of topology, node and link depictions, angles, visual rules, and how to achieve geometric simplicity, coherence, harmony, and balance. These details might not appeal to those who are not practitioners, fans, or devotees, but the many visual examples clarify the issues within the scope and magnitude of the discussion.

Some usability professionals may notice the lack of detailed reports on testing. Although tests have been performed, quantitative data are not reported much. The book’s perspective focuses on visual syntax and semantics, the varieties of possible arrangement of parts, and the general clarity of sources. References to some of the original rules of placement of stations and lines according to some spatial grid show the emphasis on designing an illustrative system that easily depicts many peculiarities of actual cities and topography.

One notable limit to the investigation is the emphasis on printed media, which certainly was appropriate for the first century of such diagrams. A future chapter or book might delve into interactive, electronic displays that now populate many stations worldwide.

The author correctly points out the need to achieve both aesthetic and functional success; that is, a successful user experience. He calls for more explorations and investigations to achieve a comprehensive theory of diagram design for this crucial communication medium.

The authors of Vignelli Transit Maps focus on New York City’s underground diagrams and those of one particular designer, Massimo Vignelli.

During the 1977 exhibit of global underground diagrams, the “Great Subway Diagram Debate” was staged at Cooper Union in New York City. People discussed the Vignelli diagram, which was introduced in the late 1960s. This diagram featured multiple lines, each representing a train (a very simple, “modernist,” geometric visual style), the use of simple white and gray areas for land and water, and the use of Helvetica typography throughout the diagram.

A new proposal, pitted against this design approach, returned to traditional green parks and blue water. It also used a single line depiction with multiple symbols to represent all the different services of trains at different times of day, different routes, for example, express versus local. After the debate, the Metropolitan Transit Authority decided to use the conservative, traditional depiction.

The lead designer presents a modern-day discussion of the history of his design. He also considers his predecessors and debates issues about geometric, diagrammatic depictions versus the more conventional cartographic, geographic, spatial depiction (on top of a map). The conventional design was the original depiction style of the London Underground before Beck’s invention of a more topological approach, which kept the correct connections but enlarged the center of the city to show the multitude of stations.

Vignelli Transit Maps provides fascinating, detailed historical narrative. The authors, along with Massimo Vignelli himself, describe the visual, functional, social, political, and economic factors that influenced the design. After thirty years, it delivers a new redesign effort based on the classic Vignelli diagram. Professionals and students should find value in the discussion of how to develop such a diagram.

The Vignelli blueprint has become an icon of this design style for its elegance and simplicity, and yet is probably still vilified by others for its break with tradition. Reading through this history is fascinating and informative.

Between both of these books, one has an immediate overview of this visual communication domain and a structured, thoughtful analysis of the design issues that challenge today’s professionals.

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