Max Roberts really likes maps. Trained as a cognitive psychologist and a lecturer at the University of Essex, he began cultivating an immense knowledge of transit maps nearly 15 years ago, even writing a book on the subject. At some point, he thought he’d give design a try.
His original designs aim to challenge conventional map dogma, a lot of which he says are outdated. Rather than emphasize straight lines, clean angles, and geographical accuracy, Roberts’ maps embody a more nuanced approach to mapping, one that combines aesthetics with usability.
When he unveiled a map of the London underground last year, Roberts says he stumbled on a “completely new way of designing maps.” The scheme seemed to break the first rule of map-making: only straight lines, no circles ever. Now, Roberts has applied the same strategy to a completely different city: New York.
The London graphic completely rehauled the Tube map to accommodate the city’s newly completed Orbital rail link. “A lot of people were saying that a good way to publicize this and emphasize orbital rail connectivity would be to create maps based upon concentric circles,” Roberts tells Co.Design. When speculative designs materialized, he found them wanting and playfully took on the challenge. The results freely warped London’s geographical features to adapt to the new geometry. The map is tightly structured, “forcing a chaotic city network into an unprecedented level of organization.”
With New York, Roberts was forced to work with the shape of the city’s irregular landscape. That meant extensively reconfiguring each of the boroughs according to the fanlike array of subway lines. Manhattan is drawn like an arrow, with Lower Manhattan occupying island’s attenuated tip. The Bronx is slotted in between Manhattan and Queens like a jigsaw piece, while the southerly regions of Brooklyn resemble the arc of an AK-47 magazine. The ice-cream-cone outline of Governors Island appears as a small orb floating in the river. Roberts explains:
I could get Lower Manhattan nice and compact, emphasising the close proximity of the stations, but at the same time the rest of the map could breathe…that fan effect might be wrong geographically, but it gives me a lovely spacious and balanced design, where good use is made of all the space.
Meanwhile, the elastic circuitry of the city’s subway tracks are straightened and normalized. The abundance of the criss-crossed streak of color is inherently difficult to work with, but Roberts sufficiently tames them to suit his purposes, achieving an overall effect of taut order. The scheme arguably improves the legibility of the lines, even if the map itself is not entirely immediately practical.
But it doesn’t have to be. Key to Roberts ideas is a distinction between geography and diagram: “Every city should produce an outstanding geographical map and an outstanding diagram,” he says. The scenario would give users two points of reference, and it would be up to them to choose which best applies to the situation. For Roberts, the former is effective in telling you “where the network is,” while the latter spells out the logic underpinning that network.
That might seem to complicate things, with subway riders inevitably aligning with one and letting the other writhe in obscurity. It shouldn’t surprise that Roberts does not agree. “A map that encourages study encourages use, so that people are less likely to give up and ask for help, and the more they use the map the more they are going to learn about the network, making them more likely to be self-sufficient and resourceful.”