Maps

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

Map and reality: diagrams

In the previous two parts, we’ve figured out that the preferred distortion and layers depend on the map’s supposed use case.

With public transport maps, our goal is to help the customer get from point A to point B using the displayed transport network.

This is a map of Paris Metro of 1915:

Paris Metro, 1915

The city is shown in full detail. There are many layers. The metro lines, however, stand out because of the use of contrasting red thick lines.

Compare with the map of London underground railways of 1908:

London underground railways, 1908

The lines of different railways are denoted by different colours. The rest of the city — the roads, the parks and the river — makes one pale-gray layer.

But even this layer is removed by 1932:

London underground railways, 1932

The river Thames is the only non-railway object that remains on this map. And it is the only device that links the railways to the surface geography.

It is always interesting to explore a detailed map with lots of layers. But in this case, the pleasure of exploration is much less important than the customers’ ability to quickly pick out which train to take. The information richness is sacrificed to the comprehension speed.

But as we see, despite all the simplifications, the central part is still rather hard to read. In several places, arrows had to be used to clarify the correspondence of labels and stations.

The engineer Harry Beck has come up with a radical idea. He suggested redesigning the maps using the principles of electrical circuit drawings.

Electrical circuit

Such drawings prioritise the logical connection between the elements over their physical position. What if a railway map also displayed first and foremost the logical connection between the stations?

The Beck’s diagram replaced the map in 1933:

Beck’s Underground map, 1933

All lines segments were put to the angles of 45° and 90°. The distances between stations were equalised.

The modern diagram has twice as many lines and many more layers, but it inherits the Beck’s principles:

Modern London Underground map

Compare with a geographical map of the same lines:

Geographical London Underground map

The central part here is so dense that it had to be put in a cutaway at a bigger scale. And even so, everything turned out very small. Now we see that showing “true” geography is not universally useful. This geographical map is much harder to read. For the railways’ customers, the diagram excels.

If the distances between the stations are equal, the reader will grasp that it’s just a convention and won’t rely on it. If the lines are strictly at 45° or 90°, the reader will grasp that they do not represent the actual paths of the underground tracks and won’t rely on it either. But this doesn’t mean that you can get rid of any geographical reference.

In 2007 I made a rectilinear Moscow Metro map as an experiment:

While the principles of the above diagram are easy to figure out, there still is a problem: even if you live in Moscow, you will have a hard time finding your station.

Since any map is perceived in reference to the image of reality formed by the geographical maps, you have to respect that. If the reader knows roughly where a station is in the city, they should be able to find it on the diagram, too.

Map and reality: layers

In Map and reality: distortion I talked about how distortion is inevitable on a map and the question is what to distort given a particular task.

Now let’s talk about layers. What properties of land should a map display?

Physical and geographical world atlas (1964)

Physical and geographical world atlas (1964)

A physical map shows terrain: oceans, trenches, plains and mountains. On a political map, the land is divided into countries and states. A mineral resources map is covered with the symbols of mineral deposits and oilfields.

One can’t say that a physical map is “truer” than, say, a railroad atlas. The following map shows the history of Amsterdam’s development, and it’s also true. Red houses are the oldest, the blue ones are the newest:

Buildings age in the Netherlands

A good cartographer will find ways to display lots of data on a map:

A map of Chelyabinsk region, Russia (1956)

A map of Chelyabinsk region, Russia (1956)

This map displays terrain, the region boundaries, motorways and railroads, settlements, ponds, mountain ridges, height markings, parallels and meridians.

By carefully choosing colour shades, widths and styles of lines, typefaces of text, the cartographer achieves clear separation of visual layers. Background colours that marks the heights are unsaturated to let one see the labels clearly. A particular hatching is used along the region boundaries to make them well distinguishable. The letters У Р А on the left separated by many other designations, are perceived as one label ЮЖНЫЙ УРАЛ (Southern Ural) on the full map thanks to a special typeface.

The more features are shown on a map, the more interesting it is to explore it.

However, there are circumstances that do not suggest an unhurried examination by a curious reader. Sometimes a map should just answer a narrow set of practical questions.

A pedestrian map shows the main landmarks, sidewalks, bike lanes, subway stations, toilets and Wi-Fi zones:

WalkNYC wayfinding system (2013)

A nautical chart displays water depths, navigational hazards, important routes, harbours and the details of the coastline:

A nautical chart

The depths are marked with numbers — while the shades of blue as used on physical maps are more illustrative, a sailor wants the actual values. The dry land gets very little attention.

The choice of the layers and the way to separate them, as well as the choice of appropriate distortion, depends on the map’s goal and supposed use.

Continued in Map and reality: diagrams.