Underground Maps Unravelled: The Book

Book launch at The Gallery (Farringdon, London)

Yesterday, I was pleased to attend the launch of a new information design book. Max Roberts just published his second book, entitled ‘Underground Maps Unravelled. Explorations in Information Design’. This book uses the London underground diagrammatic map as the major case study, but other underground diagrammatic maps are also parts of the analysis, including that of Madrid, Paris and New York underground transport networks. Roberts’ work explores and examines Beck’s design principles and extrapolates them to other information design projects. In his previous book, Roberts (2005) clarifies that the difference between Beck’s and other underground diagrammatic maps is that Beck defined and strictly followed a set of fundamental information design principles to create a functional and legible piece of design: The London Underground (diagrammatic) Map. These design principles are:

–  Grid system. Consistent use of only horizontal, vertical and 45-degree lines
–  Geometric concept of scale. Enlargement, reduction and/or distortion of accurate areas in favour of comprehension
–  Purposeful use of visual codes. Use of graphic and typographic variables to distinguish types of information and show related meanings
–  Clarity. Elimination of useless details
–  Definition of types of information. Main components well distinguished
–  Purposeful use of colour. Use of colour codes to distinguish types of information and show related meanings
Layered structure. Information of the diagram organised and clustered in groups according to similar meanings (Pontis, 2010)

Over time, these principles have become the basis of other diagrammatic maps not only related to transport systems. Roberts’s latest book emphasis that point. The book is not only about maps, but ‘about the fundamentals of graphic design’ and ‘the entire design process’ explained Roberts yesterday during his speech. The book can be seen as a wake-up call to graphic and information designers who are not precisely following Beck’s rules to communicate complex information and thus failing to achieve clarity, simplicity and legibility.

Book cover

The book presents research work which merges psychological and design principles. It sheds light on the conceptual design process and the development of complex design projects. Roberts’ s analysis enhances understanding on how diagrammatic maps can assist us, when and why they fail on doing so. He unpacks theories and explains ways to avoid cluttered communication and the development of unintelligible diagrammatic maps. The book supplements explanations with the analysis of visual examples and case studies, which demonstrate possible problems that may occur when traditional design rules are not being followed properly.

The launch event took place at The Gallery, Alan Baxter & Associates LLP; 77 Cowcross Street, Farringdon, London, EC1M 6EL

– Pontis, S., 2010. De intuición a teoría. Caso de estudio: el mapa diagramático del metro de Londres. Quadra. Revista de diseño y comunicación visual, 5, pp.25-34. Mexico: Universidad de Guadalajara.
– Roberts, M.J., 2005. Underground maps after Beck: the story of the London Underground map in the hands of Henry Beck’s successors. London: Capital Transport.

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