One of the greatest pieces of visual communication is the London tube map.
I never really appreciated it until I was taught about it, at art school.
In New York.
Cities the world over copy the basic principles of this design.
New York, Tokyo, Paris, Berlin, Singapore.
And yet I grew up with it, so I never thought anything of it.
What’s so good about it, it’s just a map?
Well no actually, it isn’t.
It’s not a map.
The routes that the tube lines follow, bear no relationship to where they actually go.
The distances bear no resemblance to reality either.
Even the Thames isn’t that shape in real life.
According to this ‘map’ every tube line is perfectly straight or smoothly curved.
And every line goes either vertically, horizontally, or 45 degrees.
No variaton.
Now of course that isn’t anything like the reality.
If you’ve ever seen a map of the actual tube lines, it’s like a cross between a spider’s web and a cracked windscreen.
But the man who designed this map wasn’t a cartographer.
He wasn’t even a graphic designer.
He was a draughtsman, called Harry Beck.
So he didn’t do a map, or an attractive layout.
He did a wiring diagram.
If you’ve ever tried to trace the electrics on a car you’ll know what I mean.
The diagram doesn’t show you an accurate drawing of the route of the wire.
It shows you a start point at (say) the battery.
Then a straight line to the end point at (say) a bulb.
You don’t need a map, you go to the car and trace the actual route yourself.
That’s how the tube ‘map’ works.
You’re underground, everything is identical: just a tunnel.
It doesn’t matter what’s going on above.
You need to know the start point, and the finish point.
In the simplest possible way.
What an absolutely stunningly brilliant piece of thinking.
The tube map isn’t a map.
It’s a wiring diagram.
Before he did it, it was a ridiculous thing to even suggest.
Since he did it, everyone in the world copied it.
Isn’t that a great lesson for us?
People can’t agree with a great thought before it’s done.
Because, if it’s a great thought, it breaks the rules.
And you can’t agree that breaking the rules makes sense because it doesn’t.
Following the rules makes sense.
That’s why we have rules.
Breaking the rules won’t work.
Until it does.
Then everyone can agree.
And, of course, it’s the same in advertising.
Breaking the rules won’t get any agreement.
If you ask for permission you won’t get it.
But once you break the rules, and it works, people can see it makes sense.
Then that becomes part of the new rules.
Which can’t be broken.
That’s how it goes.
If you wait for permission, you’ll never get into trouble.
You can’t be wrong.
But you can’t do anything truly exciting either.
As Helmut Krone said, “If you can look at something and say ‘I like it’ then it isn’t new.”