Deep art of the useful

If you were to ask 10 designers the question, what is design? you would probably receive at least a dozen different answers. The book Design Experience has a definition that reads, “If science is the deep art of the possible, surely design is the deep art of the useful”. This strikes a chord because it’s a neat way of saying design is both cerebral and practical, which in turn is a reminder of Harry Beck’s iconic 1933 London Underground map, arguably the most influential infographic of the 20th century.

As one of the company’s electricians, Beck ingeniously designed a map based on an electronic circuit diagram. His straight lines, uniform terminations and 45 degree angles, offered a representation of London that although abstract rather than geographical, was very user friendly. Because the scale was not fixed, the map was able to reach all the way from the centre to the outer suburbs. Although the information in the map has been subsequently updated, Beck’s work remains the textbook example of information graphics and perhaps best fits the definition the deep art of the useful.

So if you’re ever bamboozled by the complexity of today’s map, remember that it presents a phenomenal amount of information. Harry Beck died in 1974, but his pioneering work in making sense of our city lives on.