Architect Jug Cerovic has redrawn the subway maps for 12 major cities across the globe, to give them a more legible, memorable and consistent feel.
I spoke to Jug about his new transit designs last week, at the HERE office in Berlin. He calls the project ‘INAT’.
“It’s not an acronym. It’s a Serbian word that’s hard to translate into English. It means something like ‘stubbornness’ and ‘pride’.”
It’s the attitude with which he entered the project: a sense of daring to take on the impossible and to finish the job, despite it self-evidently being too much for one man to accomplish.
“I am sitting in my office in Paris and redesigning the whole world! How else can I approach it?” he asks.
So how does being an architect help or qualify him for transit map design?
“An architect today has to consider buildings as part of an ecosystem. Something that fits into the wider city of which they are a part.
“Also, I have to know how everything works.”
It’s worth remembering that Harry Beck, the designer of the London Tube Map, was an engineering draftsman. There’s a similar application of logic and balance in the designs Jug has created.
Maps are tools
"Just like road signs are similar across the world, transit maps can be too. That way, you don't have to learn a new 'language' when you arrive in a new city. If you have used one of these maps, you know how to use them all. You don't get afraid.
"Also, with a standardised design, you can compare systems. See which provide the best coverage - and where there are gaps - in a more objective way."
These are pieces of design: Jug says he wanted to create maps that were, “beautiful and useful.” But they cross the border into art, we think.
Jug’s first transit map in the series was Paris, where he evolved the design ‘syntax’ that make these maps so distinctive:
“I look for the symmetry and parallels in the system and expand on that,” says Jug, “and I make use of symbolic shapes in the overall design.”
Each of the maps held its own difficulties. Maps like Beijing look hard because there are so many stations, but it’s actually the density of stations and the amount of curvature on the lines that make the job harder or easier.
London was one of the toughest challenges, because the existing map is so iconic and well-loved. “But how could I claim to have redesigned subway maps, if I didn’t tackle the London Tube?” says Jug. “It’s one I had to do. It’s the one everyone was waiting for.”
“So with London, you start with the Circle Line. I wanted to use a different shape to the Beck map. I went for a…”
“A parallelogram?” I interrupt.
“Actually, it’s a Mark IV tank,” says Jug with a smile. “I saved using a circle for the Overground Line.”
But while the idea of standardising transit maps holds a lot of appeal – it’s certainly a lot easier for visitors, for example – does it not also risk obliterating the character of individual city maps, I ask?
“Having a standard doesn’t exclude local versions. In fact, all of the maps are different. If I made them all the same, it would be boring. My aim is to keep using a standard, but also to keep an individuality to each of the maps.”
Since Jug is actually a stranger to most of the cities he’s been designing for, feedback from users has been vital in refining and correcting the maps in an ongoing process.
“There were some typos,” he confesses. “This was especially difficult for the Asian maps, since I neither read nor speak any of those languages.”
But other refinements came from a need to stay in tune with the cultural niceties of particular cities.
“In New York, my instinct was to just space out all the stations equally. But users pointed out that this meant that sometimes the stations had come adrift from the road network.”
New York’s grid system of roads is so deeply ingrained a navigational reference that Jug had to ensure that his stops adhered closely to the streets and avenues of the city, otherwise it would just feel ‘wrong’ to locals.
"Maps are political statements," says Jug. "They're infused with a certain vision of the spaces they describe."
“In some respects, I just made the maps and put them out there, to see what people thought. I can’t tell anyone to use them, or make cities adopt them. But if that happened, I’d be overjoyed.
“I’ve had the warmest reception for them from Berlin and Seoul. Berlin surprised me, because it’s already got an excellent transit map. I’m here now, and soon I’ll be visiting Seoul. Let’s see what happens.” He shrugs modestly.
If you're in Germany, Jug has an exhibition showing this week only at Supermarket in Berlin. Do go along if you have the opportunity.
I tap my mobile phone. “Do you think you’ll be able to bring them here?” I ask.
“I’d love to bring them to mobile. But the trouble is, I have an architect’s mentality. I have to do it all myself. Have to retain control.
“I had to teach myself [Adobe] Illustrator to make the maps; I had to learn HTML to make my website. And so now I’m going to have to learn how to make mobile apps. That’s just the way it is.”
With his spirit of INAT, we can believe that Jug will do it. Expect the mobile apps soon! ;-)