Representations of physical space

What subway maps can teach us about the role of the viewer in communication design

Saumya Kharbanda
Oct 26, 2017 · 12 min read

In the introduction to his book The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch states: “Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surroundings, the sequences of events leading up to it, the more of past experiences.” [1] When considering representations of physical spaces, a user’s cognitive models of a space are a large part of this background knowledge, because they have a deep, intrinsic relationship with the way the user experiences, navigates, and interacts with (or within) that space. These cognitive models may be dictated by knowledge gained through physical movement, or external communication, often through devices like maps. The resulting structures help the user situate physical locations within a mental framework which evolves over time with age, education, and experience. [2] In order to design a successful map that can mediate between the physical world and the user’s cognitive models, the map-maker must first consider the user’s relationship with the space.

The London Tube map, created by Harry Beck in 1931, and the New York City Subway Map, created by Massimo Vignelli in 1972, represent two instances which follow the same visual patterns, as well as the same principles for presenting complex information in a simplified manner. However, both these maps have faced different reactions from their intended users. The difference between the maps lies in their exploitation of the users’ cognitive models. Using these two maps as a basis, this paper seeks to study the relationship between a physical place and its representation, and specifically how the role of the viewer might affect this relationship.

Harry Beck’s Map of the London Underground (1931)

Harry Beck’s underground map was the first transit map of it’s kind — one that offered a design pattern which, decades later, is still a distinct feature of transit maps around the world. Devoid of any indication of the topography of the city, this map sought to untangle the mess of the underground lines which noodle through the sprawling landscape of London. It showed all the lines at perfect 90º and 45º angles, each line a different colour, the stops spaced out at uniform, rhythmic distances. The serpentine Thames river was depicted using similar straight lines, a reduced version of its true geography. (Figure 1)

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Figure 1: London Tube Map, Harry Beck, 1931 [3]

When Beck presented his design to the London Underground management, they were concerned that the map was an oversimplification, and did not allow for accurate estimation of actual physical distance. What they had not realized yet was that the map took advantage of two crucial factors.

The first of these is ‘imageability’ of the city — described by Lynch as “that quality in a physical object which gives it a high probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer.” [4] The map’s major accomplishment is that by reducing the complex topography of the city to a uniform grid, it lends imageability to the city. This image helps the viewer build a cognitive model of the city, by allowing him to consider the spatial relations [5] in an otherwise disorganized space in which no strong unifying pattern clearly emerges. The map becomes what Vertesi describes as “an interface to the city”; It is more than a simple graphical representation of the transport network, but a means of mediation between the individual and the city itself. [6]

The other factor is a shift in the modality of movement experienced by the riders of the Tube. By stepping underground into a Tube station, the geographic realities of the land above ground melted away. In his book The Railway Journey, Wolfgang Schivelbush describes this experience of riding a train as “a projectile, and traveling on it as being shot through the landscape — thus losing control of one’s senses.” He adds, “This loss of landscape affects all the senses. Realizing Newton’s mechanics in the realm of transportation, the railroad created conditions that also ‘mechanized’ the traveler’s perceptions.” [7] With no physical markers of distance, there is a shift in the rider’s experience of the world. “Without reference to the urban landscape, the distance between stops is experientially uniform, almost abstract.” The modality of movement defines the primary unit of measurement–pedestrians define distances using blocks, neighborhoods or district; subway riders describe distances in number of stops. [8] In stripping away everything except the routes and stops, Beck’s map takes advantage of this shift, and in fact, elevates it to become the primary modality of movement in London. As Janet Vertesti found in her study, London Tube riders continue to use this map as a basis for measuring distances and giving directions, whether they are using the Tube or not. [9]

By stepping away from mimetic tendencies of map-makers — that is, being true to the experience instead of being true to the geography — he was able to produce a stunningly clear abstraction of London, one that allows users to “tame and enframe” the topography of London. [10] Londoners were relieved to see the confusing topography of their city materialize into a representation they could relate to, despite being fully aware that the map is not an “actual” map. (In fact, it is always marketed as a “journey planner”, instead of “map”.) Decades later, an evolved version of Beck’s map is still in circulation; The current map still carries an inscription stating that it is an evolution of Beck’s original design.

Massimo Vignelli’s Map of the New York City Subway (1972)

While many have been inspired by Harry Beck’s map, and employed the same visual principles, the New York City Subway Map designed by Massimo Vignelli in 1972 stands out as a notable example. It is celebrated as a graphic design classic. It has earned a place in the Museum of Modern art’s permanent collection of postwar design in 2004; It has been described by architect Paul Goldberg, writing for the New Yorker, as “more than beautiful” [11]; Michael Beirut wrote for it an eloquent homage [12]. Vignelli’s sole purpose with this map is to untangle the spaghetti of subway routes, and present them through beautiful and elegant form. Beirut described it so: “Getting from here to there wasn’t the result of a meandering sojourn, but a series of logical steps, one following on the next like a syllogism. What was happening on the street was meaningless. What happened below ground — the sequence of stops and connections — was supreme.” [13]

Vignelli took his cues from the London Tube map (Figure 2). Like Beck, he ignored the topographic realities of the city. He follows the schema of straight, color coded lines to indicate routes, and dots to indicate stops. While Beck depicted only the River Thames, Vignelli includes parks, as well as the water surrounding the city. However, he depicts these areas as grey and beige respectively, in an attempt to subvert the prevalent visual paradigms of cartography in an unexpected yet attractive way. In comparison, Beck’s tube lines are shown against a completely flat background. With these decisions, Vignelli takes the dichotomy between a map and a diagram a step further. It is almost as if he challenges anyone who refers to the subway map as a “map”, because it can be argued that it is instead, like Beck’s map, a diagram.

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Figure 2: New York Subway Map, Massimo Vignelli, 1972 [14]

However, Vignelli’s map was infamous among New Yorkers and tourists of the time. No sooner than it was introduced, complaints started flooding in about how is it unreadable and misleading. Natives found that the relative positions of stations were in complete dissonance with what they knew to be above ground; There were three stations on W 34th street, but the map did not show them on the same horizontal line as they would be above ground. Tourists were confused when, upon exiting near the lower end of Central Park, found that the walk to the top was not a 30 minute stroll as they had anticipated, but about three times as long. Users said that a map that completely flouted the city’s topography was of no use to them. [15] Vignelli’s unusual color choices also backfired, as users found it disconcerting that the parks and water were the wrong colours. The map was recalled 7 years later, and replaced with a more topographically accurate one, a version of which is still in use today.

It is peculiar that the same principles that were so effective in London proved to be a complete failure in New York. The primary reason that Vignelli cites for the reaction of this map is the decision to show the parks and water at all. [16] If the purpose is to strip away all clues of the urban space above ground, why indicate it at all? Vignelli has said, in interviews, that the one thing he would do differently is to make it “wholly abstract, devoid of such distractions.” He has also revealed that the map was never intended to be distributed on it’s own. The original plan he devised called for the subway map to be accompanied by geographically accurate maps of the neighborhoods of New York, available at all the subway stations. He had thus hoped to compartmentalize the functions of the different maps — one for each modality of movement.

Another possible explanation brings up infrastructure; The subway network in New York is much more complex and expansive than the one in London. The use of lines to show routes instead of tracks creates some confusion when multiple routes run along the same track, which happens often in New York, but rarely in London. In his book Designing Information, Katz poses the question “what do you do with color, if anything, when the routes and tracks diverge?” [17] Vignelli chose to ignore this concern, instead relying on the user to the figure out once they are inside the station that trains for all the routes would in fact arrive at the same platform.

While the interventions that Vignelli suggested might have influenced the reception of the map to some degree, there is a more significant factor at play in this situation that Vignelli chose to ignore completely. The city already has a very recognizable grid of numbered streets and avenues. The subway infrastructure also borrows from this pattern, with subway stops often borrowing numbers of major cross-streets. This orthogonal grid of Manhattan makes the space ‘legible’, giving it a distinct organizing principle. Arguably, the map could not outrightly ignore this topography of the city. [18] However, it is critical to not only understand the realities of this context, but also to acknowledge role played by the viewer within it. While it is true that there exists an organizing principle for the layout of New York and, by extension, its subway network, it means nothing till a user experiences, internalises, and forms a personal connection with it. Users navigating New York can quickly configure their abstract spatial understanding of the city to align with this existing concrete structure. The grid that Vignelli imposed on New York through his map came in direct conflict with the already existing grid that users of the city space hold in their minds. The cognitive load required for the users to reconcile these distinct models of the space is too great for them to readily accept Vignelli’s representation over their own.

This cognitive load arises due to the shift in the modes of cognition that users must perform in order for this reconciliation to occur. Don Norman concisely describes the two modes of cognition in his book Things That Make Us Smart. The first is experiential thought, which is “pattern-driven or event-driven”. The second is reflective thought, which involves “concepts, planning, and reconsideration.” He goes on to describe the dangers of designing tools inappropriately — “tools for experiential mode behavior that require reflection […] turn simple tasks into problem-solving exercises, causing needless mental effort, taking needless time.” [19] Further on, he also describes the difference between experiential artefacts and reflective ones: “experiential artefacts provides ways for us to experience and act upon the world, the reflective artefacts provide way to modify and act upon the representations.”[20] Transit maps (such as the two under consideration in this paper) are created to aid users in making decisions that get him from a starting point to the desired destination, all in a situation where they are constantly on the move, and thus need to be decidedly experiential. They must provide the users with relevant information, at the time when they need it. Vignelli’s map, by creating dissonance between the concrete and abstract spatial structures of the city, requires users to deliberately mediate between them, thus making navigation of the space a reflective task.

The Abstract and the Concrete

Through a comparison between these two examples, we find that it is not enough to merely create an independently clear, aesthetically pleasing and formally sound representation, it must also be effective in presenting “relevant information in a way the map reader can analyze and interpret.” [21] This requires not only a consideration of the physical structures being represented, but also the cognitive models of the users who will interact with it. In both scenarios, the users’ cognitive processes directly affect their relationship with the representation. We see this in the case of London, where the tube map allows the user to stabilize their cognitive map of the city, and thus the representation becomes a powerful tool through which they experience the represented world; as well as in the case of New York, where the representation is rejected because it undermines the user’s experience with the represented world. It is thus revealed that the representation of a place acts as a mediator between the physical environment and its cognitive framework. It becomes a tool through which the user can reconcile the abstract (the cognitive model) and the concrete (the physical space.)

The principle can be applied to the design of any artefact that must communicate information to users. Traditionally, the role of communication designers has been to develop the message and its aesthetics. However, they must go beyond this directive and understand the role of the users, and how their cognitive processes might affect their relationship and engagement with the finished piece. Only by considering how the user will interact with the finished piece, can they properly leverage its full potential and ensure that it successfully fulfills its purpose.


[1] Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press), 9.

[2] Richard Sambrook and David Zurick. “The Geographical Imagination.” In Spatial Cognition, Spatial Perception: Mapping the Self and Space, ed. Francine Dolins and Robert Mitchell. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 480.

[3] Harry Beck, Map of the Underground, 1936, London Transport Museum, Source:, Accessed October 26, 2017.

[4] Lynch, The Image of the City, 9.

[5] Rob Kitchin and Scott Freundschuh, “Cognitive Mapping,” In Cognitive Mapping: Past, Present, and Future, (London: Routledge, 2000), 2.

[6] Janet Vertesi, “Mind the Gap: The London Underground Map and Users’ Representations of Urban Space,” Social Studies of Science (2008), 7–33

[7] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, “The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century” (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1986), 54.

[8] Joel Katz, Designing Information: Human Factors and Common Sense in Information Design, (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2012), 161.

[9] Vertesi, Mind the Gap, 26

[10] Ibid.

[11] Goldberger, Paul, “The Vignelli Subway Map Goes Digital” The New Yorker, (September 23, 2011,) accessed November 4, 2015,

[12] Beirut, Michael, ”Mr. Vignelli’s Map,” Design Observer, (October 28, 2004,) Accessed November 4, 2015.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Massimo Vignelli, MTA System Map, 1972, Source:, Accessed November 12, 2015

[15] Alice Rawsthorn, “The Subway Map That Rattled New Yorkers,” The New York Times, (August 5, 2012) Accessed November 2, 2015,

[16] Gary Hustwit, “A Rare Interview With Graphic Design Legend Massimo Vignelli,” Co.Design, March 24, 2015, Accessed December 9, 2015,

[17] Katz, Designing Information, 181.

[18] John D. Schwetman, “Harry Beck’s London Underground Map: A Convex Lens for the Global City.” Transfers, (2014), 96

[19] Donald Norman, Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine, (1993), 26

[20] Ibid, 52

[21] Rob Kitchin, and Martin Dodge, “Rethinking Maps,” Progress in Human Geography, 2007, 331.

Complete Bibliography

Beck, Harry. Map of the Underground. 1936. London Transport Museum. Source: Accessed November 12, 2015.

Beirut, Michael. “Mr. Vignelli’s Map.” Design Observer. October 28, 2004. Accessed November 4, 2015.

Downs, Roger M. “Maps And Metaphors.” The Professional Geographer: 287–93.

Goldberger, Paul. “The Vignelli Subway Map Goes Digital — The New Yorker.” The New Yorker. September 23, 2011. Accessed November 14, 2015.

Hustwit, Gary. “A Rare Interview With Graphic Design Legend Massimo Vignelli.” Co.Design. March 24, 2015. Accessed December 9, 2015.

Katz, Joel. Designing Information: Human Factors and Common Sense in Information Design.

Kitchin, R., and M. Dodge. “Rethinking Maps.” Progress in Human Geography, 2007, 331–44.

Kitchin, Rob, and Scott Freundschuh. “Cognitive Mapping.” In Cognitive Mapping: Past, Present, and Future. London: Routledge, 2000.

Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1960.

Mark, David M., Christian Freksa, Stephen C. Hirtle, Robert Lloyd, and Barbara Tversky. “Cognitive Models of Geographical Space.” International Journal of Geographical Information Science: 747–74.

Norman, Donald. Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine.

Rawsthorn, Alice. “The Subway Map That Rattled New Yorkers.” The New York Times. August 5, 2012. Accessed November 2, 2015.

Sambrook, Richard, and David Zurick. “The Geographical Imagination.” In Spatial Cognition, Spatial Perception: Mapping the Self and Space, edited by Francine Dolins and Robert Mitchell. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. “The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century.” Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1986.

Schwetman, John D. “Harry Beck’s London Underground Map: A Convex Lens for the Global City.” Transfers, 2014, 86–103.

Vertesi, J. “Mind the Gap: The London Underground Map and Users’ Representations of Urban Space.” Social Studies of Science, 2008, 7–33.

Vignelli, Massimo. MTA System Map. 1972. Source: Accessed November 12, 2015

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