Eddie Jabbour, graphic designer for Kick Design, is obsessed with replacing the confusing NYC subway map (below: originals on left and Kick maps on right — click for larger versions).

nyc subway map

nyc subway map

The logic behind the changes
“Can He Get There From Here?” profiles Jabbour’s quest. Here he explains the reasoning for his changes:

Mr. Jabbour pinned two maps to the wall, then pointed to the different renderings of the Atlantic Avenue terminal in Brooklyn, which he says is the most difficult station to represent because so many subway lines converge there. In Mr. Jabbour’s map, the subway lines run parallel to one another, making the map easier to read, if slightly inaccurate. Each line is marked with a circle bearing the route’s letter or number, instead of the oblong station markers used on the current map.

There are other differences. Unlike the official map, Mr. Jabbour’s map does not have a single line representing all the trains in a “cluster” route, like the 1, 2 and 3 trains in Manhattan. He used the same type font throughout, and words travel left to right, rather than diagonally, as on much of the official map. The lines bend only in 45- and 90-degree angles, to create a gridlike pattern.

In the eyes of Mr. Jabbour, the New York system is too complicated to layer on information like commuter rail and bus routes, as the current map does. He would like to see a map that is singularly devoted to the subway.

Distortion vs. accuracy
Jabbour’s map looks like a winner. (Thankfully, the navigation on it is a lot better than the messy Flash interface at Kick Design’s main site). He wisely recognizes that usability is more important than geographic accuracy here. Subway map readers want to know how to get from A to B a lot more than they want to know the exact curve of the tracks along the way. Sometimes truth is less important than knowledge.

It’s also interesting to see how he increases the number of lines on the map yet decreases the overall noise created. That change means riders can put their finger on a line and trace it all the way to their destination. That’s not always an easy task on the current map (multiple trains run along a single line until veering off).

When abstractions work
In Maps, Reality, and Purpose, Johndan Johnson-Eilola explains why abstractions, deletions, and additions are part of how a map works.

At first glance, a map that doesn’t directly correspond to the object it’s mapping seems like a bad thing. But that’s what maps are: useful abstractions. They’re smaller than reality, less detailed, are usually two-dimensional. That shouldn’t been seen as a limitation, but added information. The abstractions suggest to us what features we would benefit from paying attention to.

London tube map
This is a lesson you can see in action at the London tube map, widely acknowledged as a design classic. It bears very little geographical relationship to where the stations are and even less geographical information on how far apart stations are. Here’s an interesting comparison of a real geographical tube map (top) and the adjusted version seen on the official map (below).

london tube maps


Tufte on London map
Edward Tufte is a fan of the London map.

Harry Beck’s diagram of the 7+ lines of the London Underground, although geographically inaccurate, provides a coherent overview of a complex system. With excellent color printing, classic British railroad typography (by Edward Johnson), and, in the modern style, only horizontal, vertical, and 45 degree lines, the map became a beautiful organizing image of London. For apparently quite a number of people, the map organized London (rather than London organizing the map). Despite 70 years of revision due to extensions of the Underground and bureaucratic tinkering (the marketing department wrecked the map for several years), the map nicely survives to this day.

Tufte also recommends a book on the London map: Mr Beck’s Underground Map.

The book describes the enormous care, craft, thought, and hard work of Harry Beck that went on for decades — exactly what it takes to do great information design and so in contrast to the quick-and-dirty practices and thinking of commercial art.

Of course, there are problems with inaccurate maps, as Simon Rumble points out at the Tufte site.

The main problem with the Tube map is that it is geographically inaccurate. This can lead to a very distorted view of London, particularly for those new to the city.

Many stations are geographically very close and you can end up spending half an hour in stuffy tunnels when you could have worked overground for five minutes. The same occurs in reverse. It is also deficient in the way it describes some stations. For example, the interchange between the Hammersmith and City line and other lines at Paddington. It’s a reasonably long walk but they are still in the same physical station.

Of course nobody has come up with anything better and it is still a fantastic map. After a year or so of living in London, I can work out my route in seconds.

Utopia isn’t an option here. The distorted map gets the job done better than an accurate one and that’s what really matters.

Related imagery
London Tube Map is a blog post with some interesting related imagery, including a geographically accurate map overlaid onto a NASA satellite image of London (1 MB) and the tube map overlaid onto a NASA night time London image (below).

night map