ENSIGHTS is ENSO’s space for analysis and critical thinking. To kick off the series, we re-visit a discussion on whether a perfect design exists, originally published by ENSO’s Creative Director, Jamie Wieck.

McCandless vs. Brody

Recently the UK’s design community was rocked (or nudged, depending on your viewpoint), by a frosty televisual exchange between information designer David McCandless and the infamously opinionated Neville Brody. Appearing on BBC Two’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight, the pair debated the validity of information design, with McCandless in favour and Brody against. Whilst the jury’s out on whether information graphics is indeed “the language of the eye” (McCandless) or simply “beguiling and seductive” (Brody), it was a treat to see design go mainstream, even if BBC Two’s idea of “mainstream” was 10:45 p.m. on a weekday night.

However, all this talk about information graphics got me thinking about the value of information design, and about the influence of one infographic in particular.

A Series of Tubes

The London Underground map is perhaps one of the most famous (and effective) designs of the 20th century, so when questioning the validity of information design it’s hard take a dim view when considering the map’s profound influence. But what excites me about information graphics and specifically the London Underground map, is that this type of infographic suggests something found very rarely in design. Perfection.

Many years ago, I happened to attend a lecture on information design delivered by author and journalist Mark Ovenden. Compiled to promote his new book Transit Maps of the World, Ovenden’s talk showcased his research into how the world’s great cities tackled mass-transit mapping, introducing his audience to the trials and tribulations of every information designer’s dream job.

The Tokyo Subway Route Map (Image: Bureau of Transportation, Tokyo Metropolitan Government)

I remember the most striking aspect of Ovenden’s talk was the shear breadth of mapping presented — never before had I seen so many metro maps in one place. However, instead of seeing a diverse set of mapping solutions, it soon became apparent that most of the world’s transit maps shared a single graphic ancestor: Henry Beck’s (known to many as Harry Beck) trail-blazing London Underground map.

Harry Beck's 1933 London Underground map (Image: Transport for London)

The Seeds of Perfection

Published in 1933, but originally drafted in 1931, Beck’s schematic redesign of the London Underground network was a staggeringly original improvement on the original. His use of topological distancing (as opposed to geographically accurate distancing), simple iconography and the introduction of a 45-degree grid suggested a perfect solution for transit mapping.

Time has proved the effectiveness of Beck’s approach. Since, despite being one of the most redesigned maps in existence, the logical structure Beck proposed has remained unshakable. Even Transport for London’s incremental redesigns can do little to better it, opting for a succession of minute adjustments rather than a complete overhaul.

The London Underground map before the adoption of Beck's 1931 re-design (Image: Transport for London)

Yet the strongest argument for the power of Beck’s design is it’s massive influence over this specific form of information design: a glance at any contemporary metro map is essentially a window into the past, showing the same graphic system Beck defined nearly a century ago. With such extensive take up, Beck’s ideas on mass-transit mapping can be seen as vital now as they were in the 1930s — an astonishing achievement for any design, let alone an infographic.

However, it’s the near uniform adoption of Beck’s approach to mass-transit information design that suggests he hit on some kind of perfection with his approach.

Yet, to use the word “perfection” could be considered somewhat an oxymoron in the field of design. Design itself is a changeable vessel, a conduit for communication limited only by a designer’s skill. Perfection shouldn’t exist in a medium that offers an infinite set of valid responses, so how can there be such a thing as a “perfect design”?

The Paris Métro et RER (Image: Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens)

Perfection?

The term perfection is a very loaded word; when thinking about perfection, the mind immediately comes to rest on ideas of impossible beauty. It’s word filled with classic allusions: beautiful cars, beautiful villas, beautiful people; there’s an ephemeral quality about the word that suggests proportion, balance and grace. Obviously, while design can be all these things it’s very hard for design to be viewed as conclusively perfect: subjectivity simply won’t allow it. However, what makes Beck’s design timeless (and arguably perfect) is that his map is an information graphic, a very specific branch of graphic design.

Information design is a form of design that elevates “clarity of message” above all other concerns; the medium’s sole aim is to communicate as quickly and as efficiently as possible. With this in mind, Beck’s map can be considered one of the finest examples of information graphics ever created — it’s efficiency defined.

Beck realised the previous London Underground maps attempted to communicate too much: the public didn’t need to know how far the next station was, they just needed to know how it was connected. The most important and immediate thing the public needed to know was their context within the system. By identifying this and other redundant information on the existing London Underground map, Beck was able to ditch a stylistic approach, letting the map’s function define the design’s overall aesthetic.

Harry Beck's original sketch for his version of the London Underground map (Image: The Victoria & Albert Museum)

By realising such a closed, artificial system could suggest it’s own interpretation, Beck acted as a guide, letting the map represent itself through the filter of his topological system. By trusting the data at hand he was able to create a map free from aesthetic choice and subjectivity. Beck’s masterstroke was to let logic define his design, and I think it’s this dogged logic that makes his map perfect, since, as Spock would point out: you cannot argue with logic.

The importance of logic in information design cannot be underestimated. Since infographics are regularly employed to describe the abstract, any diagram’s logic has to be solid enough to carry the reader through; this is especially important when there are no figurative images to fall back on. Beck’s map is devoid of pictorial representation, existing as a collection of topologically distanced points. It’s a map created from perfectly executed logic, and so by its nature, is perfectly executed.

If It Ain't Broke...

Though my opinion on Beck’s map is obviously subjective I urge you to think about the mess that results when designers try to amend his approach to transit-mapping. Though an excellent designer, Michael Hertz’s re-design of the New York Subway map was a car crash of curvy lines and confused iconography.

The mind-bending MTA New York Subway map (Image: Metropolitan Transportation Authority)

By attempting to reject Massimo Vignelli’s (and duly Beck’s) ideas on topological distancing, Hertz created an extremely ineffective version of this category of infographic.

The KickMap, NYC Edition (Image: KickMap)

As an aside, such was the frustration with Hertz’s subway map, the KickMap was created: a map that twisted New York’s mass-transit system closer to the Beck template.

The Essence of Good Design

So, if a design is primarily concerned with aesthetics, there will always be a number of visual solutions that will be just as valid as the next. Obviously, some choices will be better than others, but I would argue that since aesthetics imply choice, there will always be a slightly different way to approach a successful design. In comparison, logical design offers a definitive conclusion. In other words, a solution that is quantifiably better than all others — a perfect solution.

While extreme, these ideas on logic and aesthetics inform day-to-day design more than you think. ‘Form follows function’ and ‘starting with a big idea’ are just two familiar adages that recognise great design has logic firmly at it’s core.

Whilst not always exercises in logical thought, timeless design has a lot in common with great information design because both recognise the importance of stripping back the superfluous to reveal the bare minimum. Removing visual or physical chaff reduces the work the audience have to put in to read the message your design wishes to communicate. Great icons, products, branding, cars, buildings — regardless of the form they take, are all products of design and are consequently there to communicate something, and anything that makes this interplay easier needs to be embraced.

Beck’s London Underground map is one of the finest examples of this visual efficiency and while the map’s restrictive medium goes a long way to making this possible, the endurance of Beck’s thinking should be seen as evidence of a basic truth in graphic design: simplicity is the essence of good design.