The Tube Map: a very British symbol of simplicity from complexity

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We’ve all seen it, I see it every day and stare, absent-minded, at it for roughly two hours as I travel to and from work on a variety of lines. To me it goes hand-in-hand with ‘please mind the gap’ and ‘stand clear of the doors’, but to a newcomer it is an aid to getting around the world’s second largest megacity.

It has inspired other underground (or subway) maps the world over and has been parodied globally to give the lines new significance – from a Biblical tube map to what each tube station tastes like, put together by a man with synaesthesia.

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The Biblical Underground

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‘Tastes of the Underground’

It’s a map of London, albeit a non-geographically accurate one, which is symbolic of more than just train lines, but has become an icon of the capital and an inspirational piece of design. But why has it been so successful? How has it become this icon of our capital city and why is it so highly merchandised – why don’t we want iPhone cases and pillowcase covers with local bus routes printed on them?

 In March 2013 the creator of the tube map, Harry Beck, was honoured with a blue plaque which commemorated the 80th anniversary of the map’s birth in the year of the 150th anniversary of the London Underground.

However, Harry Beck wasn’t a big-shot designer working for TfL, but was originally employed to draw electrical circuits for the Underground and, in his spare time, sketched out a diagram to replace the haphazard and complicated map that Londoners used at the time for want of something better

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The tube map before Beck

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Beck’s tube map

A map, by definition, is a representation of the features of an area of the earth, showing them in their respective forms, sizes and relationships. However the tube map, for all it’s simplicity and accessibility, is not geographically correct; as this is the premise for a map then there must be a deeper explanation as to the success of such a diagrammatic and geographically inefficient ‘map’.

Map designer, Aris Venetikidis, gives us a possible explanation as to why we have such a love for those inaccurate coloured lines. When we move to a new environment we start to build a cognitive map in our brains of where we are – as we spend longer in the environment, this map expands until, eventually, you know your way around. In order to do this, you construct linear routes linking point A to point B – our mind constructs these straight lines and generally a route coming off that first line will be at a 90 degree angle. We attach meanings and emotions to the things we find along these lines and fill our cognitive maps with markers of meaning. Imagine for a moment that you are drawing a quick map for a friend, you are likely to use straight lines and corners but it is highly unlikely that it would be a geographically correct representation if you laid an OS map over it.

Explaining this unlocks the secret to the success of Harry Beck’s map; although he didn’t realize it at the time, he was creating a map which correlated to the language of our brains and how we would create a simple map of our environment. Aris Venetikidis therefore attributes Beck’s success to three things:

  1. the omission of less important information
  2. extreme simplification
  3. extreme geographic distortions

(Aris’ TED talk can be seen in full at http://www.ted.com/talks/aris_venetikidis_making_sense_of_maps.html)

There are many who argue that geographic distortion is detrimental to both Londoners and tourists in terms of creating a sustainable way of getting to know your environment. The misrepresentation of the distances between stations causes confusion and unnecessary travel – for example between Covent Garden and Leicester Square which is a three minute walk. Another example is the route between Chancery Lane and Farringdon Station; on the tube this would require two changes and four stations yet it is a seven minute walk between the two.  

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The ‘Walk Map’

‘Legible London’ is a system which encourages and helps those in the capital to find their way around by walking. They describe themselves as ‘giving people the confidence to get lost’ (Patricia Brown, Chief Executive of the Central London Partnership) and make the point that ‘109 journeys between Central London Underground stations are actually quicker on foot than the Tube’ (http://www.tfl.gov.uk/microsites/legible-london/3.aspx). With this in mind the Central London Partnership created a visual language and consistent mapping system which encourages people to walk around London and to remedy the fact that Beck’s tube map may have skewed people’s perceptions of where things are. The CLP also developed terminology which tapped into the phychological idea of cognitive mapping in order to implement their scheme. During research they identified specific areas of London which they termed as ‘villages’; these were areas such as Leicester Square, Covent Garden and Knightsbridge, areas with commonly used names which can help pedestrians to quickly relate one part of London to another. Within these villages they further identified ‘neighbourhoods’, for example within Covent Garden lie the neighbourhoods of Seven Dials, Neals Yard and Long Acre, with the intention that as the pedestrian becomes more familiar with the area, the more they will subdivide it into smaller, linked pieces, building a more detailed mental map.

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Legible London

Despite the drive for people to really get to know their surroundings and walk around the city rather than use public transport, Beck’s tube map remains an iconic design which is immediately recogisable globally and has visibly influenced other transit designs, for example the Moscow and San Francisco subway maps

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Moscow’s diagrammatic subway system

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San Francisco’s subway system

Beck’s design is an extreme simplification of an overcluttered system which has made navigating the warren of the underground possible both for Londoners and newcomers to the city. The oversimplification prompts the language of wayfinding in the brain and explains that virtually all perception is about simplification, omission and compression; The success of a non-geographically correct map such as Beck’s is that the mental map we build is not strictly geographic but revolves around the relationship between relevant and memorable locations and routes between them.

#RoyalBaby

The Royal Baby, the Prince of Cambridge, Kate and William’s son, the future King… this child has been given more names (and had more photos taken of him) in the first 24 hours of his life than any other baby in modern times – before finally being named George. No-one is indifferent to the birth of our future Monarch, whether you are a fan of the royals or not.

It’s estimated that Prince George of Cambridge will boost our economy by prompting $240 MILLION on spending – this is broken down into these estimated figures: £87 million on celebrations and party supplies, £80 million on merchandise and £76 million on media including books, DVDs, magazines, and newspapers. (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/07/23/royal-baby-economy-boost_n_3638066.html?utm_hp_ref=uk).

A huge amount of that spending is on merchandise but what kind of merchandise has this landmark birth actually prompted? Is this design that will last through the decades and truly represent the significance of this great occasion for Great Britain? Most probably not if you’ve seen any of it.

So have a peruse over the crème de la crème of Royal Baby memorabilia and decide for yourself whether you’ll be contributing to that £80 million figure or sticking with a trusty bottle of champagne.

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How about a Lego version of the couple? Created by a couple who are renowned for their bespoke designs, this isn’t the worst idea in the world but would you pay £30 just for two and a half tiny figurines?

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Scoot over to eBay and you’ll find homemade versions of the couple plus Great Granny, slightly more special given the handmade element but still not sure where you’d put them.

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And if you’d like to pretend that your own newborn is actually the heir to the British throne then there are a multitude of products to choose from, not least of which is this dummy above. Personally if I had a child I’d want them to grow up with their own identity intact. See more wannabe Royal Baby products below.

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Aside from all this, the Royal birth has prompted some more entertaining responses from the world of social media, most notably this, which has been doing the rounds on Tumblr.

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And Twitter spoke of little else with Royal baby mentions reaching 25,000 tweets per minute post-birth announcement; whereas the #royalbaby has been used 900,000 times (this figure is still rising). Some Tweets were serious, some not so… here are a few of the latter for your entertainment.

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And finally… COME ON Britain, really?!

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In other news, brands churned out some clever copy as fast as possible to make their ads culturally relevant for the day:

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But it hasn’t all been as tacky as (some of) these; we live in an age where the birth of a VIP has been saved from every possible angle in HD, thousands of articles have been published and will be forever available online at the click of a mouse and praise has come in thick and fast for the Royal couple who have shown from their behaviour that royalty doesn’t have to be a thousand miles from real life. So congratulations to Wills and Kate and welcome to Prince George!

Coca Cola cough medicine

Well… almost. It’s been a hot and stuffy Friday afternoon in the office and I’m finding myself trying to find inspiration in clever design when I came across this innovative idea by a charity called ColaLife.

 ColaLife works in developing countries to ‘bring Coca Cola, its bottles and other together to save children’s lives by opening the distribution channels which Coca Cola uses to enable ‘social products’ such as oral rehydration salts and zinc supplements to use similar routes’ (http://www.colalife.org/about/)

This began with the concept of using space in Coca Cola crates transported around developing regions, this is currently being trialled in Zambia. In case you aren’t aware, in some countries it is common practice for Coca Cola and other bottled drinks (for which we, in the UK, would expect plastic bottles) to be sold in glass bottles which are then recollected by the seller and sent back to the company to be refilled. This earns the seller extra money (they get paid a small amount for each bottle that they return), eliminates waste material and means that Coca Cola spend a lot less on material.

On a recent trip to Tanzania I noticed this trend and was impressed with how resourceful the locals were with the materials that they could get their hands on. There is no throwing half a bottle in your bag for later or reusing it personally as a water bottle for a few days, plus there is something about drinking from a glass bottle that is (dare I say it) a bit classier. Having said that, I’m not sure drinking from a glass bottle while building a toilet for the local village can be called classy…

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Going back to ColaLife, they have noticed a gap in the market and a need that needs to be addressed. As a charity they have worked with a current service at no inconvenience to what is already in place. ColaLife realised that Coca Cola is something that is available virtually anywhere in the world but in developing countries there are areas where one in nine children die before their fifth birthday from preventable diseases like dehydration or diarrhoea. This is a heartbreaking statistic when you consider that this is sixteen times the average for developing countries where the same statistic stands at 1 in 152.

One girl I met when I was travelling was called Joy, she was a part of the village that we were building in and she was clearly very ill. While we were in the village she was extremely shy – we would be playing with the other children and she would join in when everyone else did but she would never be the first to run to catch the bubbles or chase after the ball. After a couple of days we gained her trust and she liked nothing more than to sit on our laps and watch what was going on. On one of the days we went to the village there was a change, she was quieter and kept falling asleep… it was horrible to know that we had food in our backpacks and clean water but couldn’t give it to them (under orders from our team leaders and the fact that we couldn’t give everyone something) but eventually our team leader came and took a look at her and told us she was very dehydrated so he subtley took her parents aside and gave them a bit of food and some clean water to give to her away from everyone else. It is heartbreaking to know that now, two years later, she or someone she knows may have died from such a simple, preventable problem.

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So ColaLife have developed this system, see the photo below to see how exactly their products fit in with the Coca Cola bottle system that is already in place. 

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The AidPod (as it’s known) fits between the necks of the bottles and utilises the unused space in the crate to take vital aid to areas where Coca-Cola is a commodity (now most places)

As well as carrying some simple but potentially life-saving products, the AidPod has other features. First and foremost it is a container for the products shown below but it also acts as a measure for the water needed to take the medicine and a cup for future use.

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So all in all this is an incredibly well thought through and resourceful product for use in a culture in which aid is often difficult to distribute. It has often been said that to get aid out into a community that isn’t ‘westernised’, we have to be sensitive to how their culture works – throwing medicines at them won’t work but integrating them into an already seamless system and making the most of the free (well, perhaps it’s not free but it won’t be super expensive) transportation and distribution systems that Coca Cola already has in place.

This really is a truly inspirational product and while I’m sat at my desk designing leaflets/posters/brochures etc I can’t help wondering whether we, as designers, could lend a little of our time to thinking about how we can help those who aren’t in our immediate environment. We hear about poverty all the time, and I’m not blind to the fact that there is poverty to an extent within the UK, but the fact that one in nine children are dying from something that could be fixed with an AidPod fitted inbetween bottles distributed by a global brand? That’s something the designers within ColaLife should be insanely proud of.

How to create Jon Steel’s ‘Perfect Pitch’

I’ve been reading ‘Perfect Pitch’, by WPP’s Jon Steel, and it’s prompted me to think about what it really means to give a good presentation, something that, so far, I haven’t thought about in too much detail.

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This book was recommended to me by Peter Dart, of WPP fame, and Dave Brown, worldwide VP of Consumer Branding for the Brand Union; I was interested by the idea of the book but didn’t know whether the information would be relevant to me at the stage of my education/career that I am at (second year Graphic Design student, looking for placements for a year in Industry next year). I used to think advertising was where I wanted to be, partly because it was the only area I knew a lot about while doing Graphic Design at A-Level; since coming to University I have realised that my strengths and my preferences lean towards branding and working to establish the identities that become household names. However I thought Jon Steel’s book would give me an interesting insight into presenting to clients, a process that I haven’t had much formal experience in.

Although the focus of ‘Perfect Pitch’ is presenting, I think there’s a lot that can be applicable to our working process as designers and that we can learn from. In particular, Steel describes the five steps that he believes are essential to planning a good pitch.

1. Grazing

This is the research stage of any project, whether for presentation or for work on a brief, the collation of ideas and the ‘gathering of raw materials’ which seems obvious but as Steel mentions and as I have observed myself, many people will attempt to find a solution from the work go.

When I started my degree, having done two years of Graphics AS/A-Level at school and then specialising at Foundation level, I was used to the idea that you never settle on the first idea that you have, it was habit rather than something I consciously thought about. When our first project was group-work and I was coupled with people who came up with an idea seemingly out of nowhere and were happy to settle on it, I was surprised that I had to explain that the first idea was never backed up by enough evidence to be a final solution.

Steel mentions what he refers to as ‘the Data Dump’; this is when presenters throw a lot of unprocessed information at their audience without refining it, he uses O.J. Simpson’s trial as an example. Marcia Clark and her team were working to prove Simpson’s guilt and, in doing so, presented a large amount of complicated, scientific information that proved that Simpson’s DNA had been found on a glove at the scene. The information that she gave them was relevant but not refined to the point where it wouldn’t bore or confuse the audience and this was one of her big mistakes. In his book ‘Presenting to Win’ Jerry Weissman states that a Data Dump is ‘vital to the success of any presentation. The secret is that the Data Dump must be part of your preparation, not the presentation’. Weissman makes an excellent point that you do not need to mention every snippet of research in your presentation, rather work towards finding key insights within these vast areas of research so as to keep it concise.

Every week, for one of my modules, we have a three hour feedback session. We are separated into groups of eight or so with a tutor and given the opportunity to present what we have found or done during the week. Although not a formal presentation it’s interesting to see those who have planned how they will explain their research and those who simply go through piles and piles of articles and books, detailing every sentence or image that’s of interest to their brief. These are the people who need to read ‘Perfect Pitch’. I think it’s important that, even in a casual scenario, your research is presented well so as not to bore the audience, after all they are the people you will be relying on for feedback!

2. Looking for meaning

This is the part where you gather together what you have so far and try to make connections within it, which may lead to further research, insights and eventually the solution. Steel puts emphasis on the practice of moving points around (his preferred method is to use post-it notes) and pair them with points with which there is not an obvious connection, this is the way that the most original connections can be made and unique insights formed.

A few months ago I was working on a brief which asked me to promote the general population to live more sustainably. Obviously sustainability is a huge subject area and I initially didn’t know where to begin or how to narrow down my research; when I eventually settled on the disposal of objects that have lost commercial value, I conducted an interview with Dr. Julian Allwood, author of ‘Sustainable Materials, With Both Eyes Open’ and he encouraged me to look for the co-benefits – those that didn’t necessarily relate to the stereotypical view – of recycling. This led to much more unique insights and solutions than going for the points that fit together at first glance.

3. Drop It

I’m glad this was a part of Steel’s list as it is the perfect excuse for procrastination. I’m sure I’m not the only designer who gets creative block and has to completely detach themselves from their work every now and again in order to find their direction again. Steel says that they key is not to forget the project but to ‘put the whole exasperating problem as far from your conscious mind as possible’ in order to let it simmer. Steel mentions those who keep a notepad by their bed (something I have tried and not enjoyed, bed is not a workplace) but I prefer a more active approach. Everyone has their own form of ‘creative procrastination’ and mine is exercise; however much a project is stressing you out, working it out gets you out of the house (or office), clears your head and gives you an often much needed endorphin boost. Sometimes you won’t even realise that you’re thinking about the project – once on a night out I came up with a really strange idea (completely unrelated to events of the evening) which ended up becoming the conceptual solution to a book cover (this can be seen at http://jenny-cook.co.uk/117397/1122970/gallery/folk-tales-for-the-ever-curious). So the ‘creative procrastination’ does work!

4. Adapt & Distill

Back to business, this stage does involve going back to your workstation and narrowing it down to more specific presentation points. It involves sharing your idea with those who haven’t worked on the project to see if it makes sense (there’s a major conflict of interests if you try to establish this yourself), as Steel says ‘it’s not what you say that counts, it’s what other people hear’.

The reason for this stage is that you need to be able to cut the project down if needs be, for example if time runs short and you need to get all your main points across in five minutes.

Steel uses his part in a presentation to Unilever, for Persil’s ‘Dirt is Good’ campaign, as an example; this follows creative writer Robert McKee’s description of a story as a ‘design in five parts’:

  1. Inciting incident – the power of the concept which is based on real-life truth and blurs the line between what is good and bad.
  2. Progressive Complications – this is the problem, that parents agree with the concept on an intellectual level but still see it as a hassle when their children come home dirty.
  3. Crisis – an even bigger problem, this involved encouraging parents to play with their children.
  4. Climax – a ‘catalyst for change’, encouraging the ‘crisis’ problem to be solved through the childrens’ conversation with their parents.
  5. Resolution – the confirmation that the idea works through effects seen elsewhere in the world.

With a presentation broken down like this, it was presented in forty minutes but could have been delivered in 5 with all the main points put across.

5. Writing the presentation

Up to this point in the chapter Steel has not mentioned the use of a computer, and he definitely has not mentioned his arch-nemesis – the power-point presentation. This is an interesting point as during our weekly feedback sessions, we are often asked to put together a power-point or multiple page PDF to illustrate the ideas we’ve had so far… whereas Steel says putting slides together too early is ‘putting the cart before the horse’ and that ‘what you say, and what they see and hear should not be the same’. Basically do not read from the slides, this is boring and unoriginal; slides should be there to illustrate not as a step-by-step guide.

Interestingly I have a lecturer who is very good at not reading from the slides, to the point where if you daydream for five minutes of the lecture you will have completely lost the point that he was making, so abstract are some of the images he uses to illustrate. This is, however, a clever way on his part of ensuring concentration (for those who want to pass the module anyway) for his whole presentation every week. He likes to point out that the slides are of very little use on their own without his dialogue,  which is the point that Steel is trying to get across – slides are illustrations not the full story.

It’s interesting that we are not taught the specifics of how to present. At infant and primary school I was the girl whose report cards would state: ‘Jenny needs to put her hand up more’ or ‘Jenny is too quiet in lessons’, at some point in high school I outgrew this to take part in a public speaking competition, in which getting through the first round was a major achievement for me. On Foundation we were given the opportunity to present to our small group (of friends) but there were a few who would be missing on every ‘presentation day’. Now I feel that I could present a project adequately but not amazingly and, although at University we are told regularly that our presenting skills are not up to scratch, we are given little in the way of guidance. Steel’s book has highlighted a skill that I could definitely use some improvement on, but I do think Universities and higher education could provide more support for those for whom presenting will be key in their future careers!

Jon Steel has been in the advertising business since 1984, working as the agency’s youngest Brand Director for BMP and helped to make Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein, an agency in San Francisco, go from a fledgling agency to National Agency of the Year. He has worked for Sir Martin Sorrell at WPP and spent a year as vice-chairman of Berlin Cameron United in New York before returning to WPP in London. 

Image source: http://jigsawresearch.com.au/blog/?p=1286

Will you ‘Do The Green Thing’ for Earth Hour?

Have you ever thought about raising awareness for climate change through creativity? Do The Green Thing have.

If you’ve never heard of them, Do The Green Thing is a charity focused on the environment that inspires people to live more sustainably through creativity. They claim to have reached over 11 million people in over 200 countries and estimate that those who subscribe to them save over twice as much CO2 as they would have otherwise.

Do The Green Thing are currently running a campaign to support WWF’s Earth Hour through the creation of 23 posters designed by big names in the creative industry. From 1st of March until 23rd March (the day on which Earth Hour takes place between 8.30 and 9.30pm), a poster a day will be uploaded to their site (http://dothegreenthing.tumblr.com).

According to the charity, the posters will inspire people “to take simple green actions at home, school and work” through getting to places without a car, using less electricity and consuming less meat. These sustainable actions have been chosen by the nine environmental advisors of the charity and are executed by some of the industry’s top creatives.

Having read all this (if you have read this far), I bet you want to see what the fuss is all about… Here are some of my favourites so far, although there are still thirteen more posters to go so keep your eye on the blog!

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Marina Willer, a partner at Pentagram design, created the second in the series with a photo of her own foot encouraging people to walk rather than drive. She claims that walking two miles a day rather than driving would save over 300kg of CO2 each year, and burn a tidy 73,200 calories (so you can focus on that if you’re not too bothered)

Her view on her piece is that “We can panic about where the car keys are, get grumpy in a traffic jam, run out of petrol before we find a parking space, have a fight with the pay machine, and get a congestion charge penalty to finish off. Or we can walk and enjoy the world.”
Personally I like to feel like I’m doing something to help the environment but at the end of the day if it’s raining and I need to get somewhere I’m most likely to choose the comfort of the car. I like the way Marina puts this though, parking spaces can be a nightmare, not to mention always having to have change for the ticket; and what about getting in and out of the parking space when some moron has parked too close? Going back to the design, I love how simple this poster is; yet it’s simple enough to be memorable.

ImageThe fourth installment in this series comes from another partner at Pentagram, Michael Bierut, who decided to scare people into making their shower that tiny bit snappier (If you’re not familiar with the reference, Bierut is pointing to the shower scene in Psycho, an iconic moment in movie history).

Here’s what he had to say on his work:
“Taking a brisk, water-efficient shower is the best way to start a productive day. And the most famous shower ever filmed was one that was notoriously interrupted. Had Janet Leigh been a bit quicker, she may have made it to the end of the movie!”

Just think about it, cutting your morning shower two minutes short will cut down your water use by 16,425 litres and if that doesn’t cut it, just think of the extra two minutes in bed.
And if you’re still not convinced, you can download Do The Green Thing’s ‘showercast’ here: http://www.dothegreenthing.com/content/short_sharp_showercast

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London based designer and director, Steven Qua, was commissioned to create the tenth poster, released today, to encourage people to save electricity and free their minds… interesting.
I’ll be honest, I had no idea what this was about until I read his explanation:
“When I was young I lived in a town with a lot of dogs, I used to lie in bed at night looking at the moon, listening to the barking. Now I’ve moved away I miss the barking in the dark. Every day I turn the lights off look at the moon and bark myself to sleep.”
Taking a less generic approach to the brief, Qua has brought us a personal memory and experience but with the added incentive to save 20% on your electricity bill. As for barking myself to sleep… well I suppose you should try everything once.

That’s the end of my spiel on a few of the posters so far, but you can see all of them (with the full explanations) on http://dothegreenthing.tumblr.com.
To find out more about Earth Hour, the reason behind this campaign, visit http://earthhour.wwf.org.uk.