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.

A week of IA and contrasts

Display in the wood panelled Parliament Hall in St Andrews
An Information Architecture report displayed in Lower Parliament Hall, St Andrews.

It’s been a busy old week, as we’ve been working on the Information Architecture report by American firm Dynamic Diagrams, hence the noticable lack of blogging action; yesterday was an 11 hour working day, Thursday was over 12. As tiring as it has been, it has never-the-less been a most enjoyable week — as indeed most weeks here have proved to be.

Dynamic Diagrams’ visit

Much of the week was spent in the company of two splendid consultants, Kim and Mac, from Dynamic Diagrams an Information Architecture firm from Providence, Rhode Island whom the University are employing to untangle the mess that the current websites are in and present us with a better, more intuitive and usable information structure and design. This is only one aspect of the University’s website redesign strategy.

Part of the reason for Kim and Mac’s visit was to present the draft of their Information Architecture (IA) report, which was presented to a group of around 60 members of the University community in Lower Parliament Hall on Thursday afternoon. The response was very positive, and the feedback received so far has been helpful in helping to determine whether this IA is right or whether it still needs tweaking and reworking in places.

My part in this aspect of the project now gets busier and more involved as I work through scenarios and current portions of the website and see whether the IA holds up, or whether there will be significant parts of the content left over at the end of the exercise. I can see that I’m going to be spending a lot of time standing in front of the IA diagram (above). It’s a so-called ‘2.5D’ isometric diagram, also called a “Z-diagram” and is a favourite of information architects.

Another aspect of DD’s visit was to get a feel for St Andrews as a place. We’d planned for it to be a visit of contrasts: the old and the new, the traditional and the cutting-edge. What we couldn’t plan was the weather and it simply joined in: Thursday was glorious sunshine, Friday was cold and foggy.

Following the presentation on Thursday we were able to take a walk to the ruins of the cathedral and climb St Rule’s Tower, which offers a beautiful view over the town and surrounding countryside.

The ruins of St Andrews Cathedral
The ruins of St Andrews Cathedral.

A saltire flag flys over St Andrews
A view over the rooftops of South Street and beyond. I think the saltire flies from the roof of the Town Hall.

Much of yesterday — over 5 hours — was spent working on the IA for the website: are the labels right? what about the categories? are items listed under the correct categories? do these fit with the priorities of the University? do we need an A-Z index, etc. I could have gone on for much longer, had it not been 20:00 and we were all tired, and hungry.

Friday evening has never been associated in my mind with stopping work and knocking off the weekend. On Fridays I used to be gearing up for Sunday. Thursday was my day off, and so Friday was my Monday.

… meanwhile at home

Anyway, it’s been a great and very productive week at work. Meanwhile, at home I slept, ate, watched some Big Brother, and wrote some more of the Teach Yourself Mahjong updates.

Filing sermons

I used my new Psion Series 7 today to write my sermon for tomorrow. I wrote this one in the sunshine, sitting at a round patio table in our conservatory in Cellardyke. When the midday sunshine grew too bright for me to view my screen (even with the brightness at full) I moved downstairs and finished wrestling with Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus there.

I’m subscribed to an online email discussion group called Midrash which frequently offers me inspiration aplenty during the weekly discussions of the following Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary readings. It’s a wonderful resource.

Anyway, this sermon e-group got me thinking today about how I now keep my old sermons only in electronic format (with various regular backups) having discovered that the printed versions take up an awful lot of space over time. But how to store them, what format of naming and ordering on your computer would / do you use? Here’s what I do:

I have a folder entitled Sermons, within which I have four subfolders:

  • Other
  • Year A
  • Year B
  • Year C

‘Other’ covers anything that doesn’t fall into the Revised Common Lectionary three-year cycle of bible readings, eg Meditations, Funeral and Wedding sermons, sermon series and sermons that I’ve received from other people.

Within Years A, B and C I have the same eight subfolders:

  1. Advent
  2. Christmas
  3. Epiphany
  4. Lent
  5. Easter
  6. Ascension
  7. Pentecost Trinity
  8. Festivals

Hey! It’s the church year!

And within each folder I file my sermons with the following scheme — one that took me ages to develop, but which I offer to you for free:

<RCL Year> <Sunday Proper No.> <Year in ISO date format > <additional information>


A Pentecost 03 Trinity 02 Proper 05 2005-06-05.lwp
B Easter 7 2000-06-04 A4.lwp
C Christmas Eve 2003-12-24 John 1.lwp

That way I’m always aware of the RCL year that each sermon pertains to, and within a folder I can immediately see if I have a sermon for a particular Sunday, and are sorted in chronological order, eg

A Pentecost 23 Trinity 22 Proper 25 1999-10-24.lwp
A Pentecost 23 Trinity 22 Proper 25 2002-10-27.lwp

Clever, huh! I share that with you for free.