Unstable alignment

Sometimes my students would come up with a layout like this:

Unstable alignment

It may seem that things are aligned, but they are not. Can you see what’s wrong? I would ask, how is the heading positioned? They would say, it’s centered:

Unstable alignment

How is the text aligned then? They would say, it’s left-aligned:

Unstable alignment

And how was the left margin chosen? They would say, it’s aligned with the heading. But this means that the position of text depends on the length of the heading. What would you do with this if the text changes on another screen?

Unstable alignment

This doesn’t work as a system, because this structure is unstable. It reminds me of the fragile Windows Start menu:

You must be careful enough not to breathe, or the whole thing will fall apart.

So, generally, do not align a piece of text to an itself-unaligned part of another text:

Because when you translate this text into a different language, really weird things will happen:

May 20   design

Transport map design. Part 3

In part 1 I’ve covered the difference between the Beck’s London underground map, our Ekaterinburg metro map, and the Vignelli’s and Hertz’s maps of New York subway. In part 2, I’ve highlighted the more subtle details specific to the transit maps of Barcelona, Paris, Oslo, Moscow and London.

All these differences in maps were because of the differences in the cities or their transportation systems. But there is another reason for the maps to be different: aesthetics.

The transport map is not only a tool, but also is a notable object of graphic design in a big city. So even if you can make do with the Beck’s design language, you will get a London map, no matter what you depict. The transport system must have a face, and aesthetics is as important as logic.

The main feature of the Moscow metro map is the Circle line. It doesn’t fit the Beck’s language, but it’s very important to Moscow. This is not Moscow:

Transport map design. Not Moscow

This, on the other hand, is:

Transport map design. Moscow

London also has Circle line, but it has never been depicted as a circle. Today, it’s not even a closed loop:

London also has Circle line

These Circle lines are large elements and form the overall image of the map.

But little details also influence the perception of a map.

In London, the black rings of the transfer stations are noticeably thinner than the lines. The “corridors” are of the same width. The stations’ ticks are square, stick out at 2/3 of a line’s width. The names are typeset with blue New Johnston:

 Transport map design. London

In Moscow, the fat rings of the transfers are coloured with their line’s colour. The “corridors” are much thinner and have a gradient. Some transfers are circular. The station ticks stick out at full line’s width. The names are typeset with black Moscow Sans:

Transport map design. Moscow

Look at this tram map:

London Tramlink

It’s obvious that it’s a London tram map, not some other one. It follows the London transport graphic design standards — the rings, the ticks, the captions.

When we see the beige background, the particular palette of the lines, the filled station disks and the distinct designation of the transfers, we immediately recognise the Paris map:

Transport map design. Paris

Jug Cerović follows an unusual 18-degree angle grid in his Luxembourg map. If you saw it once, you recognise it every time:

Transport map design. Luxembourg

For the Chelyabinsk trams map we’ve come up with these 3D terminals:

Transport map design. Chelyabinsk

Why are they like this? The only reason is that we wanted this map to look special.

It is not enough for a good transport map to just answer the question “how to get there”. Since it is used everywhere, it is part of a city’s image. And if its design is powerful, it influences the city in other ways.

The Moscow’s Circle line in has inspired designers to create these beautiful wayfinding steles:

Transport map design

The round designations of the New York subway train routes are used in all the signage and have even made it to the dots above i in the pedestrian city maps (in the classic Helvetica these dots are rectangles):

Transport map design. WalkNYC

And in London, the Tube Map has given birth to the graphical language of all the transport-related signage:

Transport map design. TfL posters

This graphical language is so iconic that you can even buy all sorts of souvenirs with its elements: t-shirts, umbrellas, shower curtains. This design has spread not only beyond the Tube, but beyond London. There are all sorts of maps done in this style:

Transport map design

Strong graphic design of the transport systems makes them more attractive. This helps cities get rid of private cars. People spend more time outside, interact with each other. This gives small businesses a boost and makes cities more pleasant to live in.

May 18   design   maps   transportation

Transport map design. Part 2

In the first part I’ve covered the difference between the Beck’s London underground map, our Ekaterinburg metro map, and the Vignelli’s and Hertz’s maps of New York subway. But even the maps that appear to be much more alike in principle, have many little details to serve their cities’ needs.

On stations, there are tracks for opposing directions. In some cities, these tracks are marked with the names of a line’s terminals. Barcelona:

The terminals are thus important for wayfinding, so they have to be emphasised on a map. In Barcelona, they put the terminals’ names on a background, whose colour matches the line’s:

In Paris, they use bold font and put line number symbols:

This is unnecessary in London, where instead of toponymics they use geographic directions (i.e. “Northbound”).

In Oslo, a thick wisp of lines passes through the city centre. One of the lines forms a loop and passes several stations twice: first as line 4, and then as line 6. The transformation from 4 to 6 is shown with a gradient — not a typical element indeed:

There is another detail in Oslo: the trains pass the Gulleråsen station only in one direction. This requires a designation, an element that was not used in any of the maps we’ve discussed above:

Moscow has its own peculiarity: for historical reasons, the stations have different names on different lines (sick, but what can you do). In addition, the Moscow metro map has to use both Cyrillic and Latin scripts for its station names. Depiction of transfers turns into a problem. Here, eight names should be positioned around the “Biblioteka imeni Lenina — Aleksandrovsky sad — Arbatskaya — Borovitskaya” junction, where four lines intersect:

Fragment of the official map. This place looks cleaner in my design

A whopping six lines intersect at London’s “King’s Cross St. Pancras” station; just one name suffices:

There is not a single place on the giant London map where a station name intersects a line — there is always space around the lines. To achieve this in Moscow, one would need to dramatically reduce the font size and complicate the line geometry. That’s why Moscow metro map includes a device the London one does not: a transparent plaque for the station names crossing lines (see above).

But London has its own complication absent in Moscow. The grey “clouds” designate the payment zones — something Moscow does not need since the price of a ride is fixed:

Every city and transport network has lots of details which make it impossible to use the same exact graphical principles everywhere. But there is another reason for maps to be so different, which I will cover next time.

Apr 20   design   maps   transportation

Transport map design. Part 1

For many people, a map of a transport network is a given, an expected part of a system, something that just is — like a fire escape plan in a building. So when I say that I design transport maps, they don’t understand. What is there to design, even?

The London underground map by Harry Beck was the world’s first transport map to use the principles of electrical circuit drawings:

Transport map design as a city’s signature

All line segments were put to the angles of 45° and 90°. The distances between stations were equalised. I wrote about it in part three of my “Maps and reality” series, Diagrams.

This schematic approach was later adopted by many transport maps of the world. But not every time was this a good idea. This is one useless map (Samara, Russia):

It adds almost nothing to just listing the stations:

Алабинская · Российская · Московская · Гагаринская · Спортивная · Советская…

Beck’s design dealt with growing complexity and spread of London underground rail network. When there is just one line, it’s better to put this line in context. See our Ekaterinburg metro map, for example:

Every transport network requires a specialised solution.

Let’s look at New York. The subway is large and complicated, but quite different from London: trains can have different routes, which are denoted by both numbers and letters. In 1972, Massimo Vignelli designed this map:

In London, ticks are used to depict stations:

Vignelli couldn’t have used them in New York. In London, lines rarely run together through the same stations. And when they do, all trains in a “wisp” stop at all of them — see Great Portland Street and Euston Square above.

In New York, such wisps are everywhere, and some trains don’t stop at some stations. So when there is a stop on a particular route, Vignelli puts a black bullet in the route’s line:

You can see that at some stations, not every line has a bullet.

Vignelli’s map was beautiful, but, unfortunately, unsuccessful. People considered it too abstract. Having no geographical reference, the eye had nothing to catch on. Also, the stations named with street numbers looked identical — the font was just too small for that.

This design was the closest to London’s that New York has ever seen.

The successful design was the one by Michel Hertz (1979) — still in use. It includes parks, ponds, main streets and areas names:

Illustration from an interview with Michel Hertz

The related routes are denoted with just one line, not a wisp:

But there’s a list of stopping routes at each station. Look at the red line, for example. Only route 1 stops at 18, 23 and 28 st., but all routes stop at 14 and 34 st.

Hertz wanted his map to look geographical. But he knew that a “true” map would use the format very inefficiently. So his map is actually distorted significantly for everything to fit. Google Maps on the left, Hertz’s map on the right:

Hertz’s map doesn’t look stylish. But it has proven to work well. This is a very specific, bulletproof design tailored to New York.

To be continued.

Apr 12   design   maps   transportation

Why I don’t call myself a “UI/UX” designer

Many of the things I do are considered a job of a “UI/UX” designer. But I haven’t ever called myself one.

That’s because the term “UI/UX” is badly designed: it’s tasteless and vague.


The abbreviations are used in science and tech, but when normal people talk, abbreviations are out of place. A good user interface is humane.

The way this abbreviation is constructed is wacky. First, it includes the word “user” twice. The good designer would not put a word twice where once would suffice. Second, it abbreviates “experience” with X instead of E. This comes from cheap marketing, where X used to sound “cool” and “trendy”. When a designer uses it, I feel like they disrespect the user and have shallow knowledge.


There’s a “/” in the middle, whose meaning is unclear. A slash usually implies an exclusive or. So does this mean “UI or UX, but not both”?

Good writers use conjunctions, not slashes. A slash is a way to slam two pieces together without thinking what sense the combination makes. This is not how you design a good user interface though.

The lack of taste and inability to communicate well are not the qualities of a good designer.

2017   design   language   myself   work

The design of the iPhone 7

Somehow it’s become a common knowledge that the design of the iPhone 7 is almost the same as the design of the iPhone 6. This boggles my mind.

How can you not see that the iPhones 6 and 7 are the most different iPhones in the history of iPhones? The iPhone 6 is the ugliest iPhone ever created. The iPhone 7 is the most beautiful iPhone ever created.

This is the original iPhone:

Original iPhone

It was beautiful. Everything was perfectly aligned. It would be better without the black stripe on the bottom, but it had to be there for the antennas to work.

iPhones 3G and 3Gs were worse:

iPhones 3G and 3Gs

They looked fine in pictures, but were plastic, felt cheap and often cracked.

Then there were the iPhones 4 and 4s:

iPhone 4

These were special. They didn’t look nice in pictures, but were very attractive in person. The antenna lines bugged me a lot, but overall these were good ones. The glass back was really cool (I don’t break my phones).

Since then, things went downhill. The iPhones 5 and 5s were ugly:

iPhone 5

The black stripes, unlike on the original iPhone, were completely out of place. The camera was misaligned.

I wrote about it in The hope for a beautiful iPhone.

Then came the iPhones 6 and 6s, painfully ugly:

iPhone 6

The camera was not aligned with anything and sticked out. The rubber stripes were all over the back. How was this even possible? Imagine somebody showing it to you in 2008, after you’ve seen the first iPhones. You wouldn’t believe Apple would have shipped such a device.

Definitely, these were the ugliest iPhones ever built.

And then Apple showed the iPhone 7:

iPhone 7

Image from

How can you even compare it to the 6? This one is finally beautiful, after several years of ugliness. The camera is aligned with the phone’s corner, for the first time after the iPhone 4! It still sticks out, but this time the phone is designed with this in mind. It’s not slapped on top of an unexpecting phone; it’s there because it was meant to be there. The same for the antenna lines: they are part of the design, not some crap put on top because it had to be.

This is the first iPhone in years that you can enjoy just looking at. And unlike the iPhone 4, it looks great from every angle. It’s the opposite of the iPhones 6.

2017   design   iPhone

Fifth version of the Moscow Metro map

I made my first Moscow metro map in 2007. The official map was disgusting then, but nobody cared. My work inspired many designers to try to design their own map. I know several designers who gave up after they’ve appreciated how hard the task actually was. I had two major revisions of my map including the one for the official 2013 competition for the new map to be used on the system. In that version I’ve solved the problem of the Biblioteka imeni Lenina junction and invented the Compass (more on that on the 2013 map’s page in my portfolio). I took the second place. It took most of the 2015 to design the next version of the map: it used space more efficiently and the overall graphical design was improved.

Here is the new version, with the new Circle Railway (Line 14) added:

Compared to the official map, this map has almost 35% larger font when printed as same-size poster:

Fifth version of the Moscow Metro map

See the project page for detail.

2016   design   moscow metro   projects

The transformation of Moscow Metro map from version 3 to version 4

I’ve made a video showing how my Moscow Metro map transformed from version 3 to version 4:

After the video has loaded (16 MB), you can scrub it.

0:00 Changes inside the Circle and on the west
0:02 Font size grows
0:05 Font size grows
0:10 The Circle becomes smaller
0:14 Yellow line appears on the west
0:15 The grid becomes narrower
0:16 The northern and southern grids decouple
0:22 Finding the right corner rounding
0:24 Changes on the west
0:27 Preparing the north to adding the monorail
0:33 Butovskaya line on the south, monorail
0:34 Even distribution inside the Circle
0:36 It’s hard to position the Tretykoskaya and Novokuznetskaya stations well
0:42 Transfers become bigger
0:44 Font size grows
0:47 Font size grows
0:48 The northern and southern grids reunite
0:54 The font changes to PT Sans Metro
0:57 Transfers become nicer
0:59 Adjusting the distances
1:05 Layout...
2016   design   moscow metro

The “Buy” button should always work

Here is one lesson I have learnt working on Envy, a cool Hawaiian car rental.

On a car page, there is a yellow price tag with a “Rent” button:

The “Buy” button should always work

A typical way to get to this page is the following. On the front page a client chooses the desired rent dates, clicks “Find”, then selects from available cars. It is possible though, that by the time the client selects a car, somebody else books it already. Or the client reloads the car page in a couple of days, and the car is gone. One way or the other, a client can end up on the car page with the pre-selected rent dates, for which the car is no longer available, and they won’t be able to rent it.

Also, on the front page we show the best cars we have. A client can click any of them and get to its page, having skipped the dates selection altogether. In this case, the dates won’t be specified, and the client also won’t be able to rent the car. We didn’t want the client to be confused by the disabled “Rent” button, so in addition to the front page, we put the dates selectors to this price tag itself.

I presented the design of the car page to Ilya Sinelnikov (co-creator of Envy) and was talking about the price tag.

I said, we didn’t like that the “Rent” button is disabled sometimes: the website is there for the people to rent cars. But how can you rent a car which is taken by someöne else? At first, we thought that we could automatically change the dates to the nearest available ones. But it can result in a disaster: what if the client doesn’t notice the change, pays for the rent, comes to pick-up the car, and learns that we don’t have it? I said, we were also thinking about some tool to explain the problem and help the client change the dates, but there was no chance to make it on time for the website launch. So, I said, for now I suggest just disabling “Rent” the button in this case.

Also, I said, a car could become unavailable while the clients looks at its page. Therefore we needed to re-check the availability after the “Rent” button is pressed, and inform the client of a problem, if it occurs. For now, I said, we’ve designed this error page. In the future it would be better to suggest a date change or offer another car. But this is also not going to be implemented by launch...

Ilya interrupts: “To hell with the dates, let’s just make the button always enabled.”

What? There can be no car for the client when they come.

“The client is willing to pay us money”, Ilya says, “and you prevent them from it by disabling the button. This is inefficient. Let them pay, and we’ll sort it out”.

And then Ilya enlightens me. Envy as a business must be able to sort this out anyway. It is possible that a booked car is not available for the client, say, if the previous client breaks it, or whatever. In order to make the client happy, Envy offers them a better car for the same price.

For Ilya, it all appeared as if I was trying to stop his client from paying him money with my UI. But from the business perspective my UI consistency hurdles are insignificant. Dates have accidentally overlapped? Oops, sorry, here’s a Mercedes instead of a Ford, no big deal. In the worst case, if there’s a super-picky client who won’t take anything but the very car they’ve chosen on the website, we’ll return the money and apologise.

So we made the “Rent” button always enabled. If by the time the client clicks it, the car becomes unavailable for the selected dates, the manager gets a notification about a problem, and it is their job then to contact the client and agree on a new car or dates. And if the dates are not selected at all, clicking “Rent” moves the focus to the dates fields and opens the calendar, so that the client knows what to do.

Principle: the “Buy” button should always work.

2016   Bureau   design   service design   web   work calendar

We have recently published the work we have done for, a cool Hawaiian car rental:

Check it out.

Here is one detail that brings me joy. It’s the calendar where the client selects the rent dates:

Notice how the sticky part works. The heading moves up and fades out, the weekdays come to stop, and the ruler under the weekdays stretches to touch the edges, thus separating the sticky part from the moving part. There is also a nice time slider.

The calendars for start and end dates drop down simultaneously. This is counter-intuitive, but very convenient.

2016   design   user interface   work
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