Learning about good design underground

Cover of Mr Beck's Underground Map

This morning I finished reading Mr Beck’s Underground Map: A History by Ken Garland. It has been sitting on my bookshelf since March when Hazel recommended it to me.

The London Underground map is truly a work of genius. It maps London’s underground railway lines and connections rather than faithfully recreating a geographically accurate map. Garland’s book explores the history of how Beck’s original design came about, within the context of this growing network of London railways, and how his design was continued by later designers — often at Beck’s disgust.

Like many stories it is not always straight forward, but Harry Beck’s passion for this project (some might say obsession) certainly shines through. For years after the responsibility for advancing the design had been passed on to others Beck continued to work on the map in his spare time, tweaking and re-tweaking aspects of the design. In many ways it’s quite a poignant story, and you get the impression that life at home mustn’t have been easy for his wife.

There were a couple of sentences in the final two chapters that I thought helpful for any designer, and something that I’ve found particularly helpful when working on website designs. They spoke about being empathetic with the end-user.

[Beck] was continually putting himself in the position of the traveller — especially one who was unfamiliar with the Underground network — and trying to see the Diagram with an innocent eye. That he was able to do this after so long an association with it was a token of his understanding of the true and proper function of the information designer.

(Mr Beck’s Underground Map, Ken Garland, p.61)


… to be effective, information design must start, not merely end, with its users, their needs, their perceptions.

(ibid, p.62)

That, for me, is one of the most important aspects of information architecture: being able to return to a problem or scenario again and again, each time with a fresh perspective. It is about being able to see the world afresh and without prejudice. It is about imagination, imagining that I am someone different each time, approaching the site for the first time — perhaps a child, or a student, or a manager, or an older person. What do I see? (Can I see? Do I have colour blindness, or cataracts, or myopia?) What are my needs? What am I coming to the website for? Is it obvious?

The London Underground Map that we see today isn’t the work of Harry Beck, but it certainly draws very heavily on his work between 1931 and the early 1960s. For me, it also highlights another important aspect of information design and that is how important the involvement of other people is to any design project. There is wisdom in crowds … but that’s another blog post for another day.

Designing With Web Standards (Second Edition)

Spot the difference:

Designing With Web Standards (First Edition) Designing With Web Standards (Second Edition)

In the three years since Jeffrey Zeldman wrote his first edition of Designing With Web Standards his book cover has now turned green, the content has been printed in full technicolour and it appears (from the cover photo at least) that he now looks like Bob Carolgees in a beanie hat!

My copy of the new edition arrived last Saturday and I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to get into it. Not literally, I mean “read it”. I took the first edition on holiday with me, a few years back, to Tenerife. While Jane and her parents explored the island I sat on a balcony reading about the importance of Web standards. It’s not as sad as it sounds.

Well, okay, maybe it is but I certainly learned a HUGE amount from that book. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that that one book turned my life around entirely and helped to make me a completely different person.

Well, okay, maybe I am exaggerating a little, but that book gave me a new insight into what was possible with Web design. It gave me an insight into the importance of writing good, logically structured documents which are then displayed using Cascading Style Sheets. I’d read alot about both before but no-one had explained it to me quite so clearly and entertainingly as Mr Zeldman did on that balcony in the Canaries.

If you already have the first edition you probably don’t need this one (except for completeness) as you’re probably aware of the importance of standards and are keeping up with what’s going on (at places like A List Apart, for example). But this edition has been brought completely up to date. It even talks about Internet Explorer 7.

I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone vaguely interested in Web design and standards, and particularly if you are the kind of person who thinks that it’s okay to write Web pages with a class or div for everything and who uses H1, H3 and H4 tags without H2.

Less the centre of the universe

A couple of things that have floated my boat this week. (I don’t literally have a boat, it’s just a turn of phrase.)


Cover for Less album, shows lots of black and a woman's face.Listening to music the other night, I had WinAmp Pro on random play, and from the 9,431 tracks from which it could choose it happened to land on a track called “Don’t Fear Me” by a band called Less.

“Wow!” I said, suddenly paying attention to what had been until then largely background music. “What’s that? … it’s great!”

I pulled WinAmp out of the notification area/system tray and had a look. Less? I don’t remember buying that. Where did I get that from?

A quick Google search later I discovered that, sure enough, I hadn’t bought it: I’d downloaded it. Less have made available to download from their worldwidewebsite (www.less.com) both their full-length albums: “Cover, Protective, Individual” (2004) and “Piano Wire Smile” (2001) in that most popular of modern audio formats, MP3.

As an aside: if you prefer your music to be governed by DRM then you can also download these albums in .m4p format via the mighty Apple iTunes application.

Less have been described as a strange cross between Tool, Rage Against The Machine and Nine Inch Nails, or like Alice In Chains, or Godsmack, with elements of Led Zeppelin thrown in for good measure. I happen to think that most of those descriptions are right, but there is also an element of Primus in there somewhere too — not in terms of fat bass licks, but in their bold creativity and their ability to surprise at each turn.

The two albums, each named after three unconnected words, are very different offerings. The first record “Piano Wire Smile” is awash with bouncy tunes and twisted distorted guitars; the second, “Cover, Protective, Individual” is heavily acoustic. I’ve now downloaded both albums in their entireties, plus the separate track song “Painstripper”, featured in the movie “Need”, and made a donation to say thank you. This album will certainly get a lot of play in my car to and from work in the next few weeks.

Danny Wallace and the Centre of the Universe

Cover of Danny Wallace and the Centre of the Universe
A quick read this week was Danny Wallace’s new — and hilarious — book, Danny Wallace and the Centre of the Universe, conveniently published in a new “Quick Reads” series by Random House.

Danny lives in East London, not far from Greenwich which of course houses the line that marks GMT … the line that splits the earth into two and from which countries take their time. Greenwich, the centre of the earth (not its core!). Which got Danny thinking about where the centre of the universe might be, and after a quick search on Google he was surprised to learn that the Centre of the Universe is actually in Idaho, USA. In a small former silver-mining town called … Wallace! Co-incidence?

The book is hilarious. It is charming, beautifully written and very funny. And Danny, as ever, is just himself throughout: interested, open and friendly. Here’s one of my favourite passages in the book — having been in one of his books myself, I’m glad to see a connection in this passage:

‘Never call a midget a midget,’ says Ed, standing outside a bar, having a smoke. I’ve asked him what lessons he’s learned since living in the Centre of the Universe, and that’s what he’s said. Never call a midget a midget.

‘Those little guys, they don’t like being called little guys. Or dwarves. Or midgets. You gotta call them little people”. I know. that now, because I got myself in trouble one time.’

‘Why?’ I say. ‘What did you say to a little person?’

‘I didn’t know I had to call him a little person. I didn’t know what to call him. I panicked.’

‘What did you call him?’

‘I called him a gnome.’

‘A gnome?’

‘I called him a gnome,’ says Ed, taking a drag. ‘Yuh. I called him a gnome.’

‘How did he react, when you called him a gnome?’

‘He looked a little pissed.’

I nod my head.

‘That’s gnomes for you,’ he adds and stubs out his cigarette.

There’s no excuse not to buy the book: it’s only £2.99, and on Amazon UK you can pick up a copy (not literally as Amazon is a virtual bookstore, you’d have to order a copy to do that) for as little as £0.73. Seventy-three pence?! That’s 1973 prices for a book!

What better recommendations could you get from a blog post than two free albums and a funny book that you could buy for 73p (plus postage and packing)?

It’s a sign!

Sign reading The British Institute of false information, with a hand pointing right, round a corner.

Yesterday, much to my delight I received a package from Amazon UK. Inside was a surprise gift from a friend of mine of this book, called Signs of Life by Dave Askwith & Alex Normanton.

Book cover for Signs of life, showing a sign reading Disappointing Ruins.It arrived just as I was about to get ready to leave for St Andrews. That had to be put on hold for a quarter of an hour as I sat at my desk and laughed and cried and wiped the snot from my nose. I’ve not read such a funny book since The Timewaster Letters by Robin Cooper, and The Framley Examiner. Two books that are guaranteed every read to have me laughing like a hamster on top of a washing machine. (I was never any good at similies, sorry.)

Signs of life is a picture book. A collection of custom-made signs placed in public places: inside trains, on walls or trees, in telephone boxes.

This is my favourite:

English Heritage sign reads Jacob von Hogflume 1864 to 1909, Inventor of time travel, lived here in 2063.

A few of the signs are a little rude, some of the signs are simply surreal, but they are all very, very funny. Thank you, Pip for buying the book for me. I wonder what Christianity would have turned out to be like if signs from the Lord were this funny…

The Churches in Scotland To-day (1950)

Photograph of ruined cathedral cloister
How I imagine the church looked in 1950.

What a superb find. While sorting through which books to keep and which to chuck I found this volume: The Churches in Scotland To-day: A Survey of Their Principles, Strength Work and Statements, by John Highet (Jackson Son & Company, Glasgow, 1950).

Inside flap

Here’s what it says about itself on the inside front dust cover:

This book is a survey of the position, work and mind of the Churches in Scotland. It begins with an account of the characteristics (of beliefs, and systems of government) which distinguish them from one another, and a review of their numerical strength… Dr Highet then turns to the question of what has been called ‘the retreat from religion’, and discussed this mainly in light of membership trends… There follows an account of what religious bodies are doing, for example, in evangelism, in church extension, in social service, in work for youth. Finally there is a review of the pronouncements of the Churches on contemporary, moral, social, political and economic issues.


The book is a fastinating snap-shot of where the Church in Scotland was 56 years ago. I’ve scanned the Scottish Episcopal Church sections, which you are free to download in PDF format, for which you will need Adobe Reader (or other PDF reading software).

A Province of…

Here’s how the section on the Scottish Episcopal Church goes:

Although an independent denomination, representing the unbroken Episcopal tradition of the Reformation in Scotland, the Scottish Episcopal Church resembles the Church of England in doctrine, worship and government. It is in full communion with the Church of England, of which it is a Province…

Em… no! We’re not a Province of the Church of England. A Province of the Worldwide Anglican Communion: yes. A Province of the Church of England: no. Off to a good start there, then.

Who knows?

He goes on:

Although the appropriate religious haven for members of the Anglican Church who take up residence in Scotland, the Scottish Episcopal Church does not appear to fill this role to the extent it deems desirable, primarily, it would seem, because of ignorance in England of its polity and principles, if not indeed of its existence.

Not much has changed there, then! Although, we’re probably known in the Church of England as the Anglican church that allows *whispers* homosexuals.

The editor of the Scottish Episcopal Church Year Book — the precursor to the current ‘Red Book’, which many still regard as a poor successor, as the Year Book was packed with articles and statistics and facts … and stuff! It was like the Big Boy’s Book of Church-y Things. Anyway, the editor of the Year Book had this to say:

Far too many Anglicans arrive north of the border without knowing of a sister Church at work there, with which they are at once in communion, and which provides services almost identical with those to which they are accustomed.

It has always been a matter of regret that so many, especially from England, have joined themselves in ignorance to the Presbyterian and Established Church in our land… It is hoped that skilfully directed publicity (without rancour) may be successful in damming this avoidable and unnecessary leakage.

To this end a new Church Society — The Companionship of St. Ninian and St. Aidan — was setup in 1947.

Because, that’s right, isn’t it. You can imagine all these English people arriving in Scotland for the first time, thinking, “If only there was a Church in full communion with the Worldwide Church of England. There is no way of me knowing, or indeed finding out. If only there was a The Companionship of St. Ninian and St. Aidan who could help me.

A good, user-friendly name. The Companionship of St. Ninian and St. Aidan — does exactly what it says on the tin!


Speaking of ‘tin’, in the article about “The Gospel in Action”, following mention of the Church’s five Eventide Homes and the Rescue Preventative Home for Girls and Women (?!) they mention:

In certain districts work among tinkers is undertaken.

There are clearly not enough church reports written these days that mention “tinkers”.


I’ll leave you with this snippet from a speech that the Primus (the title given to the lead Bishop in the Scottish Episcopal Church — we don’t have Archbishops) delivered during the prize day at Trinity College, Glenalmond on 27 July 1948. What do you imagine that he’s come to talk about? Is it about how much Jesus loves you? Is it about how well you’ve done in one of Scotland’s elite public schools, and one of the few associated with the Scottish Episcopal Church.

Presenting the prizes at the annual commemoration day ceremony at Trinity College, Glenalmond, on 27th July, 1948, the Primus declared (Glasgow Herald, 28.7.48): ‘I believe that the vocation of the public school is essentially to train our sons for the life of true Christian community. It is precisely because we Christians have failed in that first purpose of God in his Church, to build up the true community the world over, that there has sprung up into energetic activity that faction which is making its bid to capture the world for its own type of community — the Marxian brand of godless Communism.’

The whole report is a fascinating insight into the church and society of 1950 — a world away from today. It’s easy to poke fun at bits of it (see above for details) but I was quite excited when I read it. In some ways everything has changed, and in other ways nothing has changed. Which is probably a good balance.

I wonder what the Primus would say today at a prize-giving at Glenalmond, especially now that “the Marxian brand of godless Communism” has given way to the Western brand of godless Consumerism.