Beauty vs. Usability: Exploring Information Design Through Subway Maps

We’ve all been there. The tourist in an unfamiliar city, not-so-subtly trying to make sense of a new transit system. What should be a simple trip from A to B quickly turns into missed connections and lost minutes. Years spent mastering one system may not prepare you for navigating another—as a New Yorker often confused by the D.C. Metro, I can affirm this. The solution, however, isn’t always easy to find. “People can like maps that are hard to use, and dislike those that are easy to use,” Maxwell J. Roberts writes in his new book, Underground Maps Unravelled: Explorations in Information Design. “Beauty and usability are not necessarily the same.” In the book , Roberts goes well beyond the historical to investigate how successfully schematic maps work for today’s complex networks.

Using the London Underground as a basis for experimentation, and his background in psychology as a refreshing lens, Roberts redesigns the iconic map in numerous ways to demonstrate how various approaches might affect appearance and usability. Some are successful, and others fail miserably—which is precisely the point.

“A careful, considered breaking of the rules can often surprise, with the potential for outstanding designs that capture the imagination of the public,” Roberts writes. Covering much more than just mapping, the results are mesmerizing and often surprising. Take a look at what Roberts refers to as the “London Vignelli,” the London Underground in the style of the 1972 Massimo Vignelli New York Subway map, or the all-curves version of the Paris Metro, and you start to see where the book might take you. Raising questions not just about how maps are created but about the delicate distinction between good and effective design, this book might provide the perfect distraction during your daily commute.

The so-called London Vignelli, Roberts writes, shows “the profound effects that the route-grouping system can have on the appearance and usability of the design.” (Click the maps to view larger versions.) 

For this all-curves version of the Paris Metro map, Roberts started with the premise that “the network is too complex to show as straight lines.” This version, he claims, is “typically 50% faster for journey planning than the official design.”

For this version of the New York subway map, Roberts’s aim was “to produce a compact true-schematic with simple line trajectories, and it succeeds much better than many competing designs. It attempts to show the full service pattern, express and local and part time services.”

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You might also be interested in Nicholas Felton’s webinar On Information Design, or the Information Design Handbook; the latter is now on sale at MyDesignShop.com.

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