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.