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New Vienna Circle Map Offers a Fresh View Of The Underground

Vienna's Underground map has been given a completely new look by a British psychologist specialising in looking at intelligence and reasoning as an alternative to the traditional map.

Maxwell Roberts, 46, who lives in Wivenhoe in Essex in the United Kingdom had been interested in cartography with a special interest in underground maps and noticed that the celebrated design of the London underground was starting to go downhill as more stations were added.

He said: "The legendary simple straight lines with permitted angles at horizontal, vertical and 45 degrees only, that had first been introduced by Henry Beck in 1933 were turning into cramped complex zigzags instead.

"I started to design my own London maps, to see whether a more careful attention to the concept of simplicity could restore the map. I began to question design dogma.

"Just because Henry Beck struck it lucky for London in 1933, it doesn't mean that he discovered the perfect way to design all schematic maps for all cities in the world forever. I began to break the rules.

"Different angles, any angles, no straight lines permitted, for London and other cities, testing the best of these in objective usability studies to compare them against official maps.

"It is a method that has been proven by some notable successes, for example a Paris Metro map based entirely on bezier curves is 50% faster for planning a journey than the official version which is a maze of complex zigzags."

He said in practice it came down to not just design and look also practicality: "As a psychologist, I suggest that a badly designed map is like a difficult to solve logic puzzle or intelligence test. In designing a schematic map for a city transport network, I urge designers to think about why they think a diagram will help, and how best to configure the diagram to achieve this. They should be aiming for a number of things.

First of all simplicity – the straightest lines possible that can be achieved with the smallest number of permitted angles. Second coherence – the lines should relate to each other holistically to give good shape (e.g. parallel lines, symmetry). Third Harmony – the overall appearance should contain aesthetically pleasing elements (an attractive map is more likely to be used than an unattractive one).
Fourth is balance – an even spread of stations across the page, avoiding excessively crushed and excessively empty regions and fifth Topographicity – that means treating geography with respect, avoid distorting this beyond people's comfort zones

He went on: "That led me to my book, Underground Maps Unravelled, but a few months after this was published, a new map of London was circulating on the internet, designed to emphasise London's new orbital connections by adding concentric circles to the traditional straight lines at horizontal/vertical/45-degrees.

"Unfortunately this is a combination that doesn't work well, and so I pitched in an alternative based upon circles and spokes (with a few cheats). This went viral on the internet, and I was astonished at the response from the general public, this was not seriously expected to be an improved map for London.

"The concentric circles maps have generated overwhelming responses in Paris, New York, London and Berlin. I believe that the reason why they are successful is that although they fail for simplicity (the lines are not simple and straight, they change direction often) they make up for this with high levels of coherence: they force city networks into unprecedented levels of organisation, so that people can see clearly how the elements fit together. These hunches will now be tested in usability studies.

"Circles maps are not for everywhere, and I have designed maps for around 20 different cities to try to understand which ones suit them best. The Vienna network is a favourite amongst people who research into map design with an interesting shape, with a loop at the centre and an orbital line that avoids the centre, and therefore is a good city to investigate for the concentric circles approach."

He added that to design these maps, it is important to get the centre right, otherwise the entire design fails. Vienna has an obvious point to start, and then you work outwards, fitting in the stations.

Maxwell added: "I always keep a geographical map nearby, so that I don't twist geography so much that everyone gets upset, but my first approach to a design is to make it as beautiful and regular as possible, and then only later 'spoil' the map if I have made a distortion too far.

"For example, on my Vienna future map, I know that U3 should dip south on both sides, but the horizontal line is beautiful, and every branch is at 30-degree intervals. If Austrians can cope, this is probably one of the most mathematically precise designs that I have created."

He added that the only difference on his map was that the S-Bahn was missing, but he said it was shown so badly on the current official map that it may as well not be there.

He said: "I can't make out how it works at all, it is very confusing. I will be designing more Vienna maps, I like the proposed future network, it seems to lend itself well to abstract beauty, I hope it gets built just for this reason!"

Vienna Times

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