Designing reality’s interfaces – Between the Tube map & Facebook

The People Mover by Trey Ratcliff (CC)

The People Mover by Trey Ratcliff (CC)

(The following article was originally published on Marketing Magazine’s blog. Since the original publishing coincided with The London Underground’s 150 anniversary, the broader theoretical aspect was cut out to turn this into a post about the Tube map alone. I’m publishing an uncut version here for your interest)
In 1931, a part-time engineer draftsman sat in the offices of the London Underground. Like designers of all periods, he was working after hours on a pet project. That project turned out to be with one of the most revolutionary information design concepts in history.
 
As most of you have guessed – the design in question is the London Underground map. The engineer turned design-legend was Harry Beck. An amusing/alarming fact is that it took about a year for “The Suits” to agree and trial Beck’s radical, uncomissioned, concept. It was another year before it was published on a mass scale. The rest is history. Beck’s map became the blueprint for public transportation maps worldwide and Beck himself spent the next 30 years tweaking his map to near-perfection. He was paid 5 guineas for his map – the equivalent of about £144 in today’s money.
Some things never change, indeed.
 
Train maps were a popular giveaway with newspapers at the beginning of the twentieth century, and looking at some historical maps will quickly reveal the scale of Beck’s conceptual breakthrough. Navigating the increasingly intricate London Underground network was a design problem. It was waiting for the right solution for decades. Like many major design problems, it was born at the intersection of social change, technological advancements and rapid expansions in commerce. 
 
It seems 1930s spam was much better than what we get nowadays. Tube maps lived side by side with poster campaigns exalting the many benefits of travelling by underground, many displaying levels of craft rarely seen in today’s graphic design. Maps were often given away for free with the evening papers to encourage the public to ride by train. They were a marketing application, a touchpoint – part of a campaign. “Swift and sure” exclaimed a logo tag-line on a 1908 version. Like most key touchpoints, maps weren’t single sided propaganda that shouted at the audience; they were useful brand utilities. These maps were a tool to help guide the audience in a modern world of ever more complex urban living. A part of a more complex meaning system.
 
Inside and outside the tube, lavish posters with beautifully illustrated and type-set sang the praises of the London Underground – you needed awareness, you needed to tell people why they should use it, and once they tried it, consistently remind them that they have made the right choice. These are all familiar marketing challenges, but it was the map that sealed the deal. It gave the tube a user interface.
Two different answers to a marketing challenge. Working in tandem to create a meaning system. The rest is history.
 
Beck’s tube map was a ground-breaking user interface for The Underground and, by proxy, for London. The tube map is an interface for reality. It’s also an incredibly accessible and easy to use graphic information design piece. For 1930s Londoners, increasingly confounded by the underground labyrinth, finding Beck’s map inside their newspaper is the equivalent of present-day Londoners finding a GPS navigator between the pages of the Evening Standard. Not unlike a CR code or a coupon, the map provided the means to purchase the full app. As the app’s user interface, the map defined a large part of the customer experience.
 
The tube map reinvents London’s space. It is the reason why tourists often experience London as a group of loosely connected islands. That’s why they will take the tube from Leicester Square to Covent Garden, a journey far quicker by foot and more expensive by the meter than a Concord ticket, according to Lonely Planet.
Londoners have been using a Warp-Drive engine – they step through gateways, into an hyperspace where geographical space has no meaning, replaced by a conceptual network that takes them reliably from A to B. 
 
Media critic Neil Postman famously wrote:
‘We converse about nature and ourselves in languages that make it convenient. We don’t see nature itself; our view of it is shaped by our language. Our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.’
 
Look around and you’ll see design, particularly visual design, is now the global language.
 
We tend to separate marketing and design but that boundary has always been blurry. Interface design may seem utilitarian and form still follows function, but the functions of the dominant interfaces of contemporary life are driven by commerce.
 
Interaction defines the customer experience of commercial products, promoted by business entities.  Think of what those interfaces have done to public space and private space, our sense of identity, community and many of our life-experiences, from romance to shopping…
 
When Facebook’s designers made every press of the Enter key count as ‘Submit Comment’ rather than ‘Line Break’ they may have been doing it for a technical reason (possibly aiming to unify all messaging aspects of the environment: comments, IM, email), but they also transformed the commenting experience on Facebook into being more prone to impulsive behaviour and increased the drive for shorter, condensed, expression.
 
Postman would have found this age of interfaces fascinating.  The digital revolution introduced the method and metaphor of the distinction between hardware and software. What followed was a heightened acknowledgement of the role that the software user interface plays in the interaction between us and our technology. Design has always both expressed and shaped culture, but software interfaces have put this into overdrive. Software, as the metaphor suggests, makes design more malleable, fluid.
 
While the fundamental lexicon of user interface (UI) grows relatively slowly (though quicker than hardware), and indeed has stayed fairly consistent since the early point and click hypertextual interfaces, the syntax of UI is progressing so quickly you could almost claim it’s nearing a singularity point – which would render it impossible to track. 
 
And so, design now introduces an unprecedented level of rapid change, liquidity and volatility to our cultural metaphors. 
What hope do we have to figure out post-facebook-humanity when the next transcendence is already approaching? When not even the current paradigm stands still?
 
Constantly evolving social interfaces mean constantly evolving cultural paradigms. What happens to identity when it is almost forced to leap multiple times within a single generation?
Design defines the operating system of networked humanity: reality’s interface. Design decisions may send us down roads as different as splitting the atom for energy or for bombs; whether our life-style brings a global ecological disaster or a sustainable alternative.
 
And yet, it seems technology and commerce are left alone to drive most design decisions, instead of ethics, aesthetics and welfare. 
And Marketing, instead of joining the design project of reality’s user interfaces, often settles for arguing over the desktop wallpaper.
 
There is, of course, an alternative, but it requires much kindness…

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