Learning about good design underground

Cover of Mr Beck's Underground Map

This morning I finished reading Mr Beck’s Underground Map: A History by Ken Garland. It has been sitting on my bookshelf since March when Hazel recommended it to me.

The London Underground map is truly a work of genius. It maps London’s underground railway lines and connections rather than faithfully recreating a geographically accurate map. Garland’s book explores the history of how Beck’s original design came about, within the context of this growing network of London railways, and how his design was continued by later designers — often at Beck’s disgust.

Like many stories it is not always straight forward, but Harry Beck’s passion for this project (some might say obsession) certainly shines through. For years after the responsibility for advancing the design had been passed on to others Beck continued to work on the map in his spare time, tweaking and re-tweaking aspects of the design. In many ways it’s quite a poignant story, and you get the impression that life at home mustn’t have been easy for his wife.

There were a couple of sentences in the final two chapters that I thought helpful for any designer, and something that I’ve found particularly helpful when working on website designs. They spoke about being empathetic with the end-user.

[Beck] was continually putting himself in the position of the traveller — especially one who was unfamiliar with the Underground network — and trying to see the Diagram with an innocent eye. That he was able to do this after so long an association with it was a token of his understanding of the true and proper function of the information designer.

(Mr Beck’s Underground Map, Ken Garland, p.61)

and

… to be effective, information design must start, not merely end, with its users, their needs, their perceptions.

(ibid, p.62)

That, for me, is one of the most important aspects of information architecture: being able to return to a problem or scenario again and again, each time with a fresh perspective. It is about being able to see the world afresh and without prejudice. It is about imagination, imagining that I am someone different each time, approaching the site for the first time — perhaps a child, or a student, or a manager, or an older person. What do I see? (Can I see? Do I have colour blindness, or cataracts, or myopia?) What are my needs? What am I coming to the website for? Is it obvious?

The London Underground Map that we see today isn’t the work of Harry Beck, but it certainly draws very heavily on his work between 1931 and the early 1960s. For me, it also highlights another important aspect of information design and that is how important the involvement of other people is to any design project. There is wisdom in crowds … but that’s another blog post for another day.