February 3, 2014
The truth about maps
In 1931, when Harry Beck, an English draftsman, first came up with the design of the London Underground Tube map, it was rejected because it was thought "too revolutionary." (Ken Garland's book on Beck). Beck had removed all semblance of geographic accuracy from the map and "cleaned it up" into a proportionate, rectilinear diagram […]
In 1931, when Harry Beck, an English draftsman, first came up with the design of the London Underground Tube map, it was rejected because it was thought "too revolutionary." (Ken Garland's book on Beck). Beck had removed all semblance of geographic accuracy from the map and "cleaned it up" into a proportionate, rectilinear diagram with horizontal, vertical and angular lines for train routes and evenly spaced dots for subway stops. A trial of 500 maps was run and it instantly became popular among commuters. By 1933, Beck's less-map and more-diagram was in full print run and has, ever since, been the template of subways, trains and transport maps across the cities of the world.
It's a classic case of choosing coherence over geographic accuracy. Beck, a commuter himself, understood that for the average passenger on the train, the agenda was getting from one station to another with a quick glance over the map. There was no requirement of geographical accuracy. The maps that existed before have often been referred to "as legible as spaghetti in a bowl." Beck, who used to work as an engineering draftsman at the London Underground Signals Office, designed his version invariably similar to electric circuit diagrams that he did for his day job. A map for comprehensibility rather than topographic exactitude, Beck was able to solve a universal problem of growing cities with his sound design, which is probably the reason for the longevity of its use.
Yet it won't be incorrect to say that the existing maps are a misrepresentation. When we traverse a city everyday with an MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority NY) or WMATA map (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority), our conception of the city is pretty much distorted. For instance, the city's dense inner core and the spread-out outskirts are all shown on the same scale. In a grid city like Manhattan there might be some semblance of similarity, but in most other cities, ground reality is completely different.
A project that reveals an alternative view of cities is currently being developed at the Northeastern University, Boston. Benjamin M Schmidt, a professor of history, has designed interactive digital maps of Boston, New York and Washington that superimpose the subway route map onto a geographically accurate maps made to scale. One can adjust transparency between the geographic maps and the overlaid subway routes, and can zoom in and out as well.
With research that joins the fields of cultural history and digital humanities, Schmidt's maps feed into the larger project at the Northeastern University's history department, which aims to map the urban and social change in Boston. The new maps are aligned with the historical maps to track how the city changes over time. Schmidt's maps were designed to help explain the concept of geo-rectification to his students. "I made these because I was interested in the collision of two different views we have of our cities: the Google maps version (or here, the Open Street Maps one) that we use more and more, and the subway maps, which are just as important in making us think about the layout of our cities but have a totally different perspective," explains Schmidt.
Schmidt makes its clear that these maps are not for commuters benefit ofcourse. "I definitely don’t think think these maps are useful per se. There’s a place for accurate subway maps, but not these twisted version. But I thought it would be fun to show how these examples of good design that we all live with become distorted if you try to “fix” them. I definitely wouldn’t want to see them actually changed along these lines," he says.
While Beck's classic design persists in its relevance and needs no fixing, the digital medium does offer us a new kind of opportunity. It allows us to see a dimension of reality that we didn't have access to before. Yet it emerges that the truth is quite twisted, in appearance.