Design down the tubes

London underground map
A portion of the award-winning London Underground map. I used to live near Victoria and then between Elephant & Castle and Borough.

During the last couple of years as I’ve thought more about what makes for good website design I’ve been encouraged to read more widely around the subject of design in the real world. Two books that I’ve found particularly interesting and helpful are Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change by Victor Papanek and The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Design, both good and bad, affects us all. Good design very often goes unnoticed, it allows us to get on with whatever task we are doing without thinking about it. We don’t waste time stopping to try to figure out how to use something, whether it is a door handle or a pen or a computer’s graphical user interface. Bad design very often stops us in our tracks. At best we’re forced to puzzle for a few seconds about whether to push, pull, twist or turn the door handle, at worst we give up and try something else.

Despite the leaps and bounds made in the last few years in making computer interfaces easier to use and understand (think of the difference between Windows 3.1 and Windows XP, for example) there is still a long way to go before computers can be used without even the shortest introductory course.

You are often not to blame

Something that I often find when helping people with their computer problems is that people frequently feel guilty or blame themselves for not being able to do something on their computer. “I’m really sorry, I’m not very good with technology,” they’ll say once I’ve finally figured out that the way to change the default spelling dictionary from US to UK within their application of choice is hidden within a complex array of menus and options, or that the only way to save a document in Lotus WordPro Millennium on Windows XP is that it has to be within a non-customized, yellow folder because of the way that XP handles “protected folders”.

But the problem isn’t that these people are stupid, it’s that the design of these applications still isn’t intuitive enough and they very often don’t offer users error messages that the average user can understand, using terms used are too “geeky”.

Bizzare error message
Create your own error message with Atom Smasher’s Error Message Generator.

Part of the problem lies in not being able to grasp the conceptual model behind what we are trying to do. Most users can easily grasp the concept of a desktop and a recycle bin, of folders and files because of how we use these in the real world. But their understanding falls down when they are asked to set spelling preferences in a dialog box that they can only access via Options… under the Tools menu. And then try to explain the concept behind WEP encryption for wireless networks, or JPEG compression settings to someone!

Jon Erickson in his article A Manifesto for Collaborative Tools argues that

computers should help us become smarter and work together better, and in many ways, they have. But instead of progressing, tool builders these days are moving in circles, treading water rather than swimming forward.

One reason for this stagnation is that we seem to think we’ve reached the limits of what software can do for us and what we can do with software. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our software tools — particularly in the collaboration space — are nowhere close to fulfilling their potential.


It is one of the reasons that I’m delighted that Microsoft have completely and radically redesigned the user-interface for their forthcoming version of Microsoft Office 12.

Screenshot of the new Office 12 user-interface
Screenshot of the new Office 12 “ribbon” user-interface.

In previous releases of Microsoft Office, people interacted with the applications through a system of menus, toolbars, task panes, and dialog boxes. While this system successfully provided access to a wide variety of features, it became increasingly challenging to add capabilities in a way that made it easy for people to take advantage of them.

The overriding design goal for the new UI is to deliver a user interface that enables users to be more successful finding and using the advanced features of Microsoft Office. An additional important design goal was to preserve an uncluttered workspace that reduces distraction for users so that they can spend more time and energy focused on their work.

I’ve never found Microsoft Word’s menus particularly easy to use; I don’t find them as intuitive as I do the menus in Lotus Word Pro or So I look forward to trying out this new design. And how long before other applications follow suit, or at least have the courage to move away from the current muddle of menus, sub-menus and confusing toolbars of incomprehensible icons.

London underground

So, I was delighted today to read on BBC News that the London underground map has been voted one of Britain’s best designs of the last century, along with the Spitfire and Concorde.

When Jane and I were in London a couple of weekends ago I was admiring the simplicity and beauty of the London Tube map, because while it is not geographically accurate it very effectively and efficiently maps the relationships between stations. Which is all you are really concerned about while using the Tube — you want to know where you are, where you want to get to and where you may have to change. It is good design largely because it puts the user’s needs first.

The London Underground map was designed by Harry Beck in 1931 when the Tube grew so large it became impossible to map the lines and stations geographically.

Instead, Beck designed the map based on an electrical circuit, with each line in a different colour and diamonds for interchange stations.
(Source: BBC News)

Now that is good design. It is wonderfully usable, and quite aesthetically beautiful too. If only all design could be like that.

In conclusion

Donald A. Norman ends his book with this plea:

If you are a designer, help fight the battle for usability. If you are a user, then join your voice with those who cry for usable products. Write to manufacturers. Boycott unusable designs. Support good designs by purchasing them, even if it means going out of your way, even if it means spending a bit more. And voice your concerns to the stores that carry the products; manufacturers listen to their customers…

And enjoy yourself. Walk around the world examining the details of design. Take pride in the little things that help; think kindly of the person who so thoughtfully put them in. Realize that even details matter, that the designer may have had to fight to include something helpful. Give mental prizes to those who practice good design: send flowers. Jeer those who don’t: send weeds.

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 52 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Scrum master at Safeguard Global; latterly at Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

4 thoughts on “Design down the tubes”

  1. Under the influence of my tutor (when specialising in design on my art foundation course) I know a whole group of us who are known to comment in awe ‘ Good design!’ or shake our frowning heads and growl ‘Bad design’ at just about anything from a paper bag to a shop layout.

    If you are as delighted by the tube map as I am, I recommend you read ‘Mr Beck’s Underground Map’ by Ken Garland. It shows all the preliminary designs and developments that led him to the finished map.

    H x

  2. Great recommendation Hazel, thanks. The book Mr. Beck’s Underground Map (Capital Transport Publishing, 1994, 80 pages; ISBN: 1854141686) is available on Amazon UK for £12.95.

    And I’m quite the same about “good design” or “bad design”. I’m sure my early influence on design is down to my Dad who was a trained draughtsman, and I’m sure was on one of the many teams that designed ‘bits’ for the Harrier jump-jet.

    That said, when it came to designing our kitchen extension in Selkirk there are still bits that Mum curses him for … like putting the extendable towel-rails on the other side of the kitchen than the sink! And the cool pastry-rolling surface next to the oven rather than the sink! Still, the extension hasn’t fallen down yet! You live and learn.

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