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Plus ça change, Washington D.C. style

Recently, I entered a friendly contest organised by the Greater Greater Washington website to redesign the Washington, DC Metrorail map. With the recent appointment of the original designer, Lance Wyman, to renew the real map, there’s a lot of interest in this subject at the moment.

I had already done a lot of the hard work with my previous redesign, although a few of the contest’s new requirements definitely necessitated a lot of rethinking. Overall, I thought my design was very successful and I was absolutely thrilled when I learned that my design (Map C) placed first in the People’s Choice award and had earned second place from the jury. To me, it was justification that new and fresh, well-considered design can overcome the status quo and be accepted by a large base of people, despite the obvious attachment to the old map that people have.

I waited with bated breath for the next day, when the judges’ number one choice was to be revealed. There were quite a few designs that I considered to be excellent, and I wondered which of those had taken the prize. To say I was surprised and disappointed when the winning entry was revealed to be an absolute clone of the current map with the Silver Line and new peak services grafted on would be a huge understatement.

I’d like to point out here that I have absolutely nothing bad to say about the designer of the winning entry – he thought that this was a valid approach to take, executed it well, and the jury agreed with him. Design is a very subjective thing: everyone approaches the same problem differently, and all viewers react to that solution differently.

However, I do feel that the winning entry once again shows all the flaws of the current map that I have previously discussed: huge callout boxes about timetabling that unattractively cover half the map, inconsistently angled type, the “ugly Volvo” parking symbols, a “District diamond” that somehow doesn’t form an exact diamond (the left side is much lower than the right), huge transit station circles that no longer work with the additional Silver Line and thick route lines that now obscure the landmarks shown on the map with that added line.

The jurors even point out many of these critical flaws in their notes, yet still awarded their prize to it. In short, the judging panel is saying, “This really doesn’t work, but we still think it’s better than anything else presented”. Familiarity and the status quo wins over innovation, fresh thinking and strong design. Or the combined reaction of a group over the individual?  Maybe as a group we want that familiarity; while as anonymous voters, we can appreciate and advocate new ideas without being influenced by others’ thoughts.

I’m certainly under no illusions about the future of the Metro map. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the map is so ingrained into the psyche of people from the greater DC area that any change will only ever be gradual and incremental. I guess I was just hoping for a more dynamic decision from a contest that has little or no bearing on how the real-life map will evolve.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.


  1. Hi just stumbled over the image above when i was searching for redesigned maps. Without reading anything, i evaluated them, and whit much more strategically formed graphics and with a good color choice, with the more subtle colors in the background, the important things are shown in a clear way. Good design ,the one to the left.

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on the Draft WMATA Diagram | Cameron Booth

  3. As a frequent transit user & therefore master of transit map interpretation, I definitely prefer your version to the winning map. There are just too many things going on in the winning map! (It looks like a colorful octopus with station stops for suction cups reaching out to get me…) I agree with Erik’s comments on angled text. Who wants to be tilting their head left and right as while trying to read the map?

    It’s too bad the judges went with the more familiar than your cleaner design, but I hope they keep it in mind in future iterations.

  4. erik spiekermann

    That winning entry is a giant FAIL.
    Type at different angles immediately disqualifies and diagram; the stop buttons are ridiculously noisy, the colour schem childish and lines way too thick.

    But then I am used to European diagrams (this is not a map!) which tend to be quieter and more organized than US ones which often look like they were bought at a “Maps R U” store. I don’t know the specifics of the DC system, but on a few basic issues alone, Cameron’s diagram is much more functional. Any change will upset people, but after 2 weeks everybody is used to the new stuff and will defend that just as much.

    Disclaimer: I designed the diagram for Berlin Transit, back in 1991.

  5. Andrew

    When i first saw your redesigned map, my immediate reaction was shock and perhaps a tiny tinge of disgust. A couple of seconds later, my higher brain kicked in and told the part that was, as you say, only concerned with the familiar, that this actually was a vast improvement (so much so that I bought a print). I’m sad that the jurors went only for the very minor incremental change, rather than the radical redesign that the system needs.

    Basically, it seems like the jurors said, “We really like all the elements of this one, but this other one makes us feel warm and fuzzy, despite having no substantial improvements whatsoever.” I suspect if someone had jokingly submitted the existing map, it would have received high marks from the jury. They said they wanted a redesign, but their actions speak otherwise.

    I have but one complaint of yours, and it’s a strange one: We don’t need to be told when the phases of the Silver Line will be done. Metro passengers did just fine for 20 years with unlabelled dashes leading to far-off places like Franconia-Springfield and Glenmont (I still think of the Red Line as to Wheaton). Also, if Metro somehow misses that deadline (OutLANDish, I know, but surely stranger things have happened) then it would either be embarassing to keep advertising the same year, or they’d pay to replace the posters.

    • Andrew, thanks for your comment. I agree totally about the “warm and fuzzy feeling” that the current map has – so much so that it seems to be able to mask its failings from most viewers.

      As for the phases for the Silver Line being marked on the contest map, that was actually a requirement from the contest design brief, so I had to put it on. Most other entries did it as well, to varying degrees of success. Except one, which made no attempt to delineate the two phases at all. Can you guess which? That’s right, the jury’s winner didn’t even fulfill all of the design brief requirements.

      • Andrew

        Oh. Didn’t notice it was a requirement. Okay, then, though that doesn’t mean it was a good requirement. Especially when you point out they didn’t even follow it.

        The more that comes out of this contest, the more annoyed I get with it. And if anyone at Metro paid attention to it, it would only justify bad decisions.

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