The Concentric Circles Maps

In December 2012, the final section opened for London's new inner suburban circular railway, and a number of designers were proposing maps using concentric circles to emphasise the new orbital connections. Unfortunately, these generally grafted circles onto standard Henry Beck schematic map rules: horizontal and vertical straight lines, and 45 degree diagonals. From the point of view of a circle, there is nothing special about these angles, and the results suffered from having elements that related to each other poorly.

The most effective way to relate concentric circles to straight lines is to use spokes and tangents. Thus was born my 'Circles Tube Map', which immediately went viral on the internet. Many found the concept too alien, but others were mesmerised by its unearthly charm, totally unlike any Underground map seen before.

I had intended Circles Tube Map as a playful exploration rather than an improvement in usability, but the positive response caused me to rethink. The design lost points for simplicity - its lines twisting and turning with many unavoidable corners - but the payback was a massive gain in coherence - the way in which the elements of a map holistically relate to each other, ideally giving the result clear shape. These maps force cities into unprecedented levels of organisation. This had not occurred to me when I commenced design, and usability testing will now follow to investigate this.

New York is the ninth destination in my world tour of circles maps. This should not even have been attempted - how can a grid city with no real orbital component to its rail network be remotely be compatible with these design rules? The surprise is that, having identified a suitable point of origin, and apart from a few awkward locations, the map falls into place neatly. People may object to its aesthetics, and geographical purists will dislike it in the same way that they distrust all highly schematised designs, but its overall power is harder to dispute.

It is surprising just how many cities can be fitted to these design rules, and the results are often spectacular from an aesthetic point of view. There is geographical distortion, more so for some cities than others, but I've always argued that geographical maps and schematic maps have distinct roles to play, each serves a purpose, and so any transport undertaking that refuses to make both available is short-changing its customers. A good geographical map shows where the network is, a good schematic shows how the elements of a network relate together logically. An uncomfortable hybrid serves neither role as effectively.

Whatever the usability outcomes, if a product is attractive and powerful for some people, so that they enjoy looking at it, that is half the battle won for the information designer. Maps that are attractive are more likely to be used, and people are less likely to turn elsewhere for help. In turn, they will acquire more knowledge about the network the more they use a map, creating a virtuous circle of learning. Unfortunately, when it comes to aesthetic considerations, you can't please all people all the time, so maybe it is time for people to be given a choice of maps, so that they can choose the one that they are most comfortable with.