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Mapping Meaning

Words:

Edd Norval
March 6, 2018

When you think of the world's major cities you usually think of their landmarks, the films that were shot there and the famous artworks hung up in museums. But sometimes all of these things coalesce. They come together in in our transport systems and the way we see them.

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The trains and undergrounds of the world's major cities are often associated with the tags and murals that line their routes as displays of bravery, dominance and tribalism. Rarely though, do people think of the serpentine underground system as the art itself.


These systems are a maze of intersecting routes that, if depicted true to life, would be a complete mess. The earliest maps of the London Underground were overly elaborate and awkward - their purpose was to communicate and that's almost precisely what they didn't do.


The artist, Max Gill, would later be responsible for the more factually based London Underground map that drew the lines and stops more accurately - a first draught of today's map. This feat is often overlook due to his more famous brother, Eric Gill (sculptor, font-creator and dog-fucker) that grabbed headlines at the expense of the younger Gill. Max's close-to-reality underground map saw the light in 1922, but it wasn't until 1929 that George Dow thought it better to design an easy-to-use map that relied on a little creative license and imagination. This map for LNER would come to inspire one of the most recognisable designs of the 20th century.

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When associating design with city, you have Milton Glaser's I heart NY logo and the London Underground map designed by Harry Beck in 1933. Giving the lines individual colours and a uniform distance between stops meant that the image was very easy to glance at and absorb the information, a crucial part in making the Underground system more efficient and thanks to its 'bullseye´logo, more iconic.


It's this basic design that created the foundations for the metro maps that have become iconic in Sydney, Paris, New York and Tokyo. The beauty of the design lies not only in its ease of access, but that they seemingly simplify cities that are so chaotic above ground - the clean lines instil a sense of order amongst the chaos, cutting out the complexities of life above it - using primary colours to guide us.


Some cities, preferring to rely on homegrown talent, or just refusing to follow a British model, fought against the simplicity and abstraction of Beck's design for years until, almost unanimously, the world's maps now follow the principles that he set down decades before.

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These maps are purely representative, not geographically accurate in their directions and spacing, with certain maps taking great artistic license. This introduces the idea that 'the map is not the territory' as set forth by Alfred Korzybski, which details that our brains are conditioned to think of cityscapes in the way that these maps set out, but as they are in fact, representational and not wholly accurate, we often mistake the representation of reality to be reality itself - Ceci n'est pas une pipe.


This image-based conditioning means that our perception of the whole world is actually based on 'maps' and not reality - it's our brain's pathways to make things more simple and easy to understand. It was Beck back in 1933, working as a freelance draughtsman, that realised this psychogeographical perspective and changed how we see the cities that we interact with. Our perspectives are greatly shaped by maps and guidebooks, as opposed to the lived experience of a city's geography.


It was all thanks to one man trying to understand the impossibility of the tangled mess of tunnels beneath our feet that changed everything.

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