Mapping the Underground

Following a heads-up from Diamond Geezer, I went to Southend yesterday and caught an exhibition of underground maps with a difference, in the last couple of hours before it closed.

The maps were by Maxwell Roberts, a psychologist and designer at the University of Essex, and the exhibition was in a brash new building on the University’s Southend campus, near the station on the Fenchurch Street line. (Southend has three railway lines, if you count the one that runs two kilometres along the pier.)

There seemed to be two motivations for creating the maps in the exhibition, other than the sheer pleasure of making extraordinary things. As designer, Roberts was interested in the question, “Can a good map be created just by following rules? What happens if you make small, or radical, changes to the rules?” As psychologist, he is interested in what makes a map easy to use; he has run experiments to see how long people take to get information from maps in different styles.

The requirements don’t always agree: the best-looking maps are not always easiest to use. He also notes that whereas tourists prefer the simple schematic maps, Londoners like the topography to be not too far wrong (e.g. Wimbledon is near Morden, and Cannon Street is very close to Bank).

Most of the maps are variations on the familiar modern map of the Underground (and Overground), with small changes: more or fewer allowable directions for lines (or, in one case, no restrictions at all); more or fewer kinks; a map with east at the top (not ideal since it is hard to read – it is in portrait mode, and stations in the east and west are out of easy viewing range); and a remarkable and lovely curvilinear map with no straight lines at all. One map, for comparison with the standard, gives station names in all-capitals. He has also included some maps of the Paris, Madrid and Moscow metros for comparison, and some jeux d’esprit. These include:

  • Maps in the style of Harry Beck or the earlier style of F. H. Stingemore extended to the modern network. Both of these cope remarkably well with the extra detail. Stingemore’s map is topographical but not constant scale, so that the distance from Chalfont & Latimer to Chesham is about the same on the map as that from Bond Street to Oxford Circus.
  • Maps in Art Deco style or in the style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
  • A reconstruction of a lost map of the LMS suburban services designed by George Dow in 1935, where Roberts has worked from an old photograph in a railway magazine showing the map displayed outside a station (as an incidental detail in a much larger photo). Quiz: Where were St Quintin Park & Wormwood Scrubbs, and Victoria Park? When did they close?

There will be another exhibition in Colchester sometime. Roberts told us that he had been visited by a small group from TfL that morning, and is expecting either to be closed down for infringing copyright, or to be invited to exhibit in the Transport Museum. Let’s hope it’s the latter; go and see it if you can! In the meantime you could look at his website.

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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One Response to Mapping the Underground

  1. The exhibition is in London until 22 October 2010, at Scott Brownrigg architects, 77 Endell Street.

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