Subway Maps & Purpose-Driven Design

Maps are just…cool. They put us two or three miles above the earth and let us peer down, like God(s) at what lies below. By giving us this view, they ground us and give us information and perspective that we couldn’t otherwise obtain and digest.
There many types of maps: climate, political, topographical and transit system maps and they all have one thing in common: we overlay information upon the geography to help serve some purpose. A topographical map is of no use to me if I’m interested in zip code boundaries.
Tina Eisenberg’s excellent Swiss Miss blog points to a redesign of the NY subway map has been boldly put forth by designer Eddie Jabbour. Here’s a little taste of what Mr. Jabbour’s done to our beloved subway system map:

You can see a lot more by clicking the above image. A quick stare tells the story: the map has been redesigned with a greater focus on its intended purpose. Mr. Jabbour is clearly cheating here. The paths of the subway lines are downright inaccurate, but alas there’s a great lesson to learn here: good information design is about cheating with information if the result better serves the consumers of that design. We’re not looking to plot out exactly where the subway lies underneath New York City. We’re just trying to make our way around the city, and this revised map is better aligned with that purpose.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority to date hasn’t shown much interest. Ah well…

4 Comments Subway Maps & Purpose-Driven Design

  1. Tim Marman

    Just one comment – while Mr. Jabbour’s update is much prettier, the existing Subway map already abstracts the physical track layout with an eye towards intention. So yes, it’s a nice improvement, but it’s an iterative improvement on an idea that’s already there.
    “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

  2. Hay Kranen

    Mr. Jabbour is clearly cheating here. The paths of the subway lines are downright inaccurate (…)
    If you look back at the history of subway maps that is the one thing that makes Harry Beck’s original London tube map a revolution in design: looking at the purpose of a medium (finding your way around the subway system) instead of the thing it should represent (the concrete structure of subway lines).
    Pity they won’t accept the redesign. The current map looks like a bowl of spaghetti.


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