Mind the gap
May 21, 2015 12:31 PM   Subscribe

Harry Beck's original London Underground Tube Map was a design classic. The latest Transport For London version... Not so much.
posted by fearfulsymmetry (37 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sure it's difficult to further develop an iconic design but this is just sloppy work.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 12:44 PM on May 21, 2015


Even under ideal conditions it's bad, but if you're using Mac Safari and you've got the "Never use font sizes smaller than..." accessibility setting turned on, the web version is hilarious. All the type is overlapping and piled up like a heap of garbage.
posted by w0mbat at 12:45 PM on May 21, 2015


None of the 'Not so much' links explain why this version is a design disaster. One walks through new and removed stations, one complains about the kink in the central line (which seems like a totally reasonable change given the changing nature of the system and the map) and the last points out technical problems in the web version.

Anyone care to weigh in on why this is a failure, or sloppy?
posted by wemayfreeze at 12:47 PM on May 21, 2015 [14 favorites]


This seems like one part rocky launch of new feature and one part "they changed it now it sucks"
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 12:50 PM on May 21, 2015 [9 favorites]


Why do all these tube maps exist independent of surface maps? I'd much rather see exactly where each station is on the ground so I can tell which station is closest to where I have to go. Google maps does plot them, so that's good, but the transit agencies should be doing it without asking. I've scoured Boston's and New York's transit websites and come up empty many times.
posted by BentFranklin at 12:51 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


It looks like they got rid of the zones? Does this mean a fixed price regardless of how far you travel? And the end of checking out with your Oyster card? Because that would make a lot of sense.
posted by three blind mice at 12:51 PM on May 21, 2015


I'm unclear on why glitches in rendering mean the design is bad. It's as though these design critics had never build web applications...
posted by lodurr at 12:58 PM on May 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


I am quite a fan of this alternate take on the Tube map. The author nails down why the original design is overwhelmed: the newer TfL additions, particularly DLR and Overground, have re-centered the map and required it to cover far more land. The simple set of rules it uses to create the diagram end up contorting it further and further.

The aesthetics of it I don't really care about. Yes, it's all quite orange, but then orange was one of the few colors they had left by the time they added Overground to the map. And its pure functionality as a diagram of the system isn't compromised; if you know your origin and destination stations, it's easy to figure out how to get from one to the other. But I do think they could make a map that was more geographically accurate without making it any more complex.

If TfL keeps assimilating existing transport and adds all the line extensions that are currently planned and puts CrossRail on the map, in a decade the map will be hopelessly dense with information. I don't really have an answer for that. You could make a map without Overground and simplify it quite a bit, but that map is less useful than the full version. Maybe the problem is in having one canonical representation.
posted by savetheclocktower at 1:03 PM on May 21, 2015 [6 favorites]


Why do all these tube maps exist independent of surface maps?

There are several reasons, one being scale and density. The tube covers an immense geographical area, and station density is so much higher in the central area that a complete, geographically accurate map in a usable size couldn't even successfully label those stations properly.

The second is the basic realization behind Beck's map: that a schematic view is simply far more useful for a transit user than a physical view. "Where is this station in relation to the street I'm standing on or the place I want to be?" is actually a different kind of question than the kind the tube map is meant to answer. To answer surface questions you want a surface map.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:05 PM on May 21, 2015 [15 favorites]


Why do all these tube maps exist independent of surface maps?

Because their purpose is to enable you to navigate the tube network, not to locate the station in another context. If they were better maps of the world they'd be worse maps of the underground.

So, given that you're going to need at least one other map (to find the things you want to locate the stations in relation to), then I'm not sure why the burden of providing another map should fall on the tube company any more than on the destination you want to get to. Or on yourself, to be honest.
posted by howfar at 1:05 PM on May 21, 2015 [11 favorites]


None of the 'Not so much' links explain why this version is a design disaster

If you want to know why the kink is there, look to the east, at Liverpool Street. Note the new Blue-White line running NW to Shenfield? What you're seeing is the first evidence of Crossrail. When the tunnel is complete, that line will change to purple-white, run through Liverpool Street, head NW to Farringdon, then SE and intersect with the Northern Line at Tottenham Court Road, then west to the Central Line at Bond Street. The kink is to allow that line to be drawn clearly later.

The problem is with the addition of the Jubilee Line extension, the Victoria Line, the DLR, and the Overground, more Overground, even more Overground, and Jesus Christ they've added more Overground the map is just overwhelmed.

It looks like they got rid of the zones?

No, it's just that with the addition of Jesus Christ they've added more Overground the zones made the map even more unreadable. I used to joke that zone 7 was the rest of England, zone 8 was Scotland and zone 9 was the US, but there's zone 9 and beyond within TfL control now. I guess Chicago is somewhere around zone L. Maybe.
posted by eriko at 1:09 PM on May 21, 2015 [7 favorites]




More like 'Mind the Overlap'
posted by Flashman at 1:17 PM on May 21, 2015


but there's zone 9 and beyond

Oh no. When I download the pdf I see it.

9 freaking zones is a fail. And the idea that you have to check in and check out is just too much information to be forced to give over. Bad enough one has to make it easy to see where you enter, but how about a little privacy on where one exits?
posted by three blind mice at 1:23 PM on May 21, 2015


Can I just say that the placement of that dagger before Waterloo is typographically deeply unfortunate?
posted by scruss at 1:35 PM on May 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


how about a little privacy on where one exits?

This is the UK we're talking about. We've already been caught on three forms of CCTV just getting to the fucking station.
posted by howfar at 1:35 PM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


I have a tube map shower curtain in my guest bath. It's colorful and cheerful and full of interesting names.
I don't think I'll update it, though.
posted by Biblio at 1:36 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also a new London Rail Map

Londonist on tube maps back in Feb
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:36 PM on May 21, 2015


I'm not sure why the burden of providing another map should fall on the tube company any more than on the destination you want to get to.

While admittedly it is a far smaller system, the TTC has maps of just the underground, the entire service area, the nighttime-only routes, etc.

Given the massive complexity of the Tube though, and London geography in general, I don't see how they could get everything on one (paper) map in a readable format. Electronically would be easy as pie; couple with GPS and it could show you just the routes nearby, enter destinations and show you just the route you need, etc. All that said, I feel like system maps aren't usually for longterm residents of a given city; they're for transient visitors and newcomers for the most part.

I'd be really curious to see solutions that work on paper for e.g. tourists or non-smartphone-enabled newcomers.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:46 PM on May 21, 2015


Anyone care to weigh in on why this is a failure, or sloppy?
I think your points are right: the complaints are being raised by people who are bothered by the unexpected kink, or people whose browsers rendered it wrong.

Admittedly, the browser rendering problem should have been caught, but I think this is only getting so much attention because lots of people use the site, not because it's that bad relative to some things out there.
posted by thatnerd at 1:47 PM on May 21, 2015


Anyone care to weigh in on why this is a failure, or sloppy?

Because they built it using SVG, a web technology which is notorious for making text appear at different sizes on screens with different resolutions/DPI settings. A tube map with densely packed text is just about the worst possible use case for SVG.

For comparison the same map in PDF looks fine, but I guess this was a case where the designer was all "well it looks OK on my PC - job done"
posted by Lanark at 1:47 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


not because it's that bad relative to some things out there.

what a glorious link, thank you!
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:48 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


In a case of predictable irony (or whatever), the "not" link to the article in the London Evening Standard complaining about technical glitches causing words to overlap, itself has technical glitches rendering in my browser and is all smushed into the left margin.
posted by traveler_ at 1:49 PM on May 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


Honestly, the growth of London Overground is a fantastic story and should be forefront. City-based franchising of rail services is the way forward for most railways in England, excepting intercity services. It would provide a middle way between the currently failed privatization and renationalization. The services can still be contracted to private companies (should cities so wish; London Overground is), but local control would let for better service and fare integration with buses and trams (where existing). Considering much rail travel is commuting, a commuter-focused system makes sense.

Whether it would still be a target of antirenationalizationism, I don't know.
posted by Thing at 1:53 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


For me the Evening Standard website was constantly scrolling up and down making it impossible to read, the web designers of London have a lot to learn I think.
posted by Lanark at 1:54 PM on May 21, 2015


feckless fecal fear mongering: "I'd be really curious to see solutions that work on paper for e.g. tourists or non-smartphone-enabled newcomers."

They used to sell great little Tube maps that folded up into a sturdy cardstock self-case. On the outside of the case was the map of the tube that you could reference without opening the map; when you opened it and unfolded it, it was a street map of London (maybe one side of the region and one of the city center?), with stations marked clearly so you knew where you were coming up. They were small enough to fit in a polo shirt pocket or a jeans pocket (about American wallet sized). You bought them for a pound from vending machines in Tube stations. They were perfection for tourists (or visiting students, as I was) and held up to a great deal of abuse. Mine's still in great shape in the bottom of some box somewhere.

Can't find it online because I can't hit on the right search term.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:31 PM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


BentFranklin: Why do all these tube maps exist independent of surface maps?

If I remember correctly, the Paris Metro map has some fidelity to the surface. While that may be a flimsy reason to move to Paris, any reason to move to Paris is a good one.
posted by Kattullus at 2:35 PM on May 21, 2015


I wish my city (Seattle) had this problem.
posted by Ratio at 3:10 PM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


solutions that work on paper for e.g. tourists or non-smartphone-enabled newcomers

That would be the London A to Z I think, and I never have used an online version but always have a current London booklet (and a Bristol one, and a Newcastle one.) You can get a map but the booklet is handier. There's also the super mini maps but I don't think they're quite the same as Eyebrows McGee mentions, I think I remember the covers of those vending machine ones were more black and yellowy.
posted by glasseyes at 3:50 PM on May 21, 2015


A to Zed.
posted by glasseyes at 3:50 PM on May 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


When you are making an interactive map, "technical problems with the web design" are explicitly part of the design. It's equally important how it behaves as how it looks. And when how it behaves also impacts how it looks, well, then you've solved neither problem.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:53 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


They used to sell great little Tube maps that folded up into a sturdy cardstock self-case.

London Bus and Underground PopOut Map, they also have an overground version.
posted by Lanark at 4:21 PM on May 21, 2015


Well, the horrible bugginess of the launch online map version is a ( presumably temporary) web tech implementation issue rather than graphic design issue and none of the other links are really complaining about the new design's aesthetics, just musing about all the little changes. actually, overall the design hasn't changed, which is why they're focused on the little changes...
posted by Bwithh at 4:35 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Of possible interest: Transit Maps, previously
posted by Room 641-A at 5:33 PM on May 21, 2015


iI can thoroughly recommend Mr Beck's Underground Map, a large format hardback book that covers the development of the map from its prehistory through to the mid 90s. The backstory of the map - strictly speaking, the diagram - includes a lot of internal politics, power-grabs and failed experiments, and if anyone thinks the current effort is a design disaster they should see some of the efforts that preceded it.

I find it immensely heartening for a number of reasons. First, that London has a commitment to public transport that, despite lacunae, has been kept to for more than a century. I moved here in the 80s, and caught the tail end of a period of under-investment and lassitude which meant that half the network was more a rolling museum than a serious rapid transit system. Since then, there's been a drumbeat of new stock, new signalling, new tracks, old lines being brought into the system and new lines developed. (The downside is that this investment has been massively disproportional to that spent on rail in the rest of the country: that's another story).

Second, the commitment to cohesive design has continued. The current map is a lineal (ho ho) descendent of Beck's 1931 invention, not for nostalgic reasons but because it works. Given the history of working ideas thrown over for matters various of corporate madness, this gives me no small joy. Innovation continues, but rarely for its own sake. That there's a kink in the Central Line in preparation for Crossrail is a good indication that Beck's creation will be going strong on its hundredth birthday.

It is overburdened by all the additions (what a problem to have!) and I'd love to see an app/web site that used technology to radically enhance the process of finding and following your route. (Actually, I'd like to see the whole system able to guide passengers through focussed cues. Perhaps by 2031.) But while the world is wedded to diagrams on paper, I'm pretty confident that the people responsible for the map are fully aware of and committed to its history, purpose and method.
posted by Devonian at 5:37 PM on May 21, 2015 [6 favorites]


What I don't get is why the text is rendered as HTML. It's not responsive anyway, right?
posted by signal at 5:56 PM on May 21, 2015


Mr. Beck's Underground Map is indeed a great book, but I think it only goes up to the 1960s? There is a followup, Underground Maps After Beck, that brings things up to the early-/mid-2000s.
posted by oakroom at 8:19 AM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


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