Sunday, February 6, 2011

Less Is More


We'll get back to the elevated railway pictures next week.


subway diagram

I've written a lot about subway diagrams over the past year. One of the meta issues I keep tossing around is how much detail to include.

The pressure in favor of more detail is generosity. Why withhold information that could be put on the diagram? As a diagram fan wrote me a few weeks ago:

The line numbers and letters. Without them, the map is much less useful, despite being perfectly printable now. Even a person closely familiar with the system needs them from time to time, and certainly all newcomers need them desperately.

It's a question of informational completeness of the diagram. Without line numbers/letters, it is not a diagram of subway lines, but simply an abstract piece of art with very little relationship to the actual subway. Clutter can be avoided by showing each colored line number/letter only once between any two junctions of that color. Then the line topology will be clear. Currently it is not. A major piece of information is missing.

But the opposite pressure to simplify, simplify, simplify, is to me both a question of esthetics and also of making the big picture comprehensible. I made some comment on the letters and numbers in the first half of Subway Map III and I think I mentioned it a few times in the course of the Making a Subway Map series.

I made the new diagram originally without the letters and numbers, and then in version 5.02 I gave in to my doubts on the subject and put them in. Here's an excerpt.

But I really didn't like those blobby circles all over the place. I thought they distracted the eye. So I took them back out for 5.03.

Then I thought about it some more, and tried another approach for 5.06, the one that's up now.

I think that's a lot better. At a glance you can ignore those little notations. Then if you look close at an area of interest you might start to notice them.

If you look at the whole diagram you'll see that I went all out and even labelled the mainline railroads and the ferry services. Those labels were inevitably longer, but they tend to be in parts of the map that had whitespace to spare. To keep them manageable near the city terminals I just put 'Metro North' and so forth, and farther out I named the 'lines' or 'branches' too.

Believe it or not I'm still not sure about it.


less is more

At any rate 'tis easy, all of it!
No sketches first, no studies, that's long past:
I do what many dream of, all their lives,
—Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,
And fail in doing. I could count twenty such
On twice your fingers, and not leave this town,
Who strive—you don't know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,—
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter)—so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged.
There burns a truer light of God in them,
In their vexed beating stuffed and stopped-up brain,
Heart, or whate'er else, than goes on to prompt
This low-pulsed forthright craftsman’s hand of mine.

I never read that before this week. It's an excerpt from an ironically long poem by Robert Browning with an ironically long title, "Andrea del Sarto (called the 'Faultless Painter')", 1855.  Emphasis by me.

When I hear "less is more" I think of the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. I wanted to find the source of his quote, so I could ponder the context, but here we go again. I've been down this path before. Is just what he should have said? The Wikipedia article on Mies cannily states, "He is often associated with the aphorisms 'less is more' and 'God is in the details'". Associated. I take that to mean that they couldn't find a source either!

At any rate, Mies certainly is on record to the effect that it's harder to make something simple than it is to make it ornate. Browning's artist knows he can fill a painting with perfectly rendered detail but he envies the simplicity of a lesser artist. I side with Mies though. Simplicity, well done, is hard. When you use simple lines, you have to get them just right. Design a glass-box building without getting it right, and you've got the architectural version of Nester's subway map.

Yes. I am still thinking about the subway diagram.


Northern Railroad

I never plug my Wikipedia writing. Oops, is the first rule of Wikipedia that you don't credit your writing?

I recently spent what felt like a lot of time expanding the History section of Northern Branch. Now that I look at it the parts I touched I realized it was only seven paragraphs (the first two sections under History).

But hard won! I tried to keep it simple and that does take longer. On the other hand, under Wikipedia rules I needed to decorate the text with the little <ref> footnote things, which meant pulling out books and papers from the Collection to verify the factoids.

Why this article? A bit of nostalgia maybe. One of the places I used to live was a block from the Northern track. I guess I thought of it as my little railroad. Three trains to Hoboken in the morning, and three back in the evening. And then that ended.

I never did ride it. Really Joe, just get your ass out of bed early enough some weekday morning and walk a mile to Sparkill and ride it while you can. That's me talking to Younger Self. If we only had time travel perfected by now. This is the 21st Century, right? What's the deal anyway? There are so many occasions where I'd be giving myself a flick in the back of the head for something I did or did not do. I'd be a different person today. A different person, always looking out for Old Joe to show up and give him another dope slap. Maybe that would not make me a better person. So I will accept what I cannot change. I did not ride the Northern Branch.

I walked it sometimes, after it had gone to just one freight train a day. If I went south, I had to go on a small bridge over a creek, walking on the ties.

And I have this:

I consider this a beautiful piece of design. Take it in.

The most important words are dead center in large letters in a pleasing clean typeface. Right below is an aid to finding the track at Hoboken. The wording is left-aligned with the name, and the little diagram of lights hangs out to the left. That's the practical stuff, and it's presented so clearly.

The most eye-catching thing in the upper portion is the railroad's symbol, one that I always found very attractive. The Erie had the same circle in a diamond, with 'ERIE' in the center, but after the merger it became an 'E' 'L' monogram. I wonder whether they paid big money for that, or somebody in the company just doodled it. Whatever. Its origin doesn't affect how good it looks. And it's just the right size here. It doesn't pull your eye away from 'NORTHERN BRANCH' but it still makes its presence known.

I'm not done! The slogan, in a script that screams '1960' at you, is a good one. And the city skyline at the bottom is, like the rest of this, just right. Its horizontal bottom anchors the design of the whole cover, and it looks a little exciting. It's funny that we're looking at Manhattan from the East River (see the United Nations buildings?) instead of the Hudson, but what could they do? That was the city's good side.

And the use of whitespace (bluespace?) is well done. The only nit I'd pick is whether 'LOCAL TIME' should have been set closer to the effective date. They seem to have pulled it out by itself to give it a little emphasis. But what other time would they use? Did the unfriendly service routes mess with people's heads by using a distant time zone?

The inside listing of a whopping six trains is a letdown after that cover.

A bigger letdown is the rest of the same series of timetables. Here are two.

What happened?

Granted, the names of these two timetables had to be longer. But that should be the only difference. The layout uses the same template but these are just wrong. Does simple design require more complex instructions? Somebody followed the plan. There's the same header material down to 'LOCAL TIME', and then there's a large space for the name, and under that the colored light symbol and the indication. Yet these come up wanting, once you've seen the Northern Branch. My little railroad was the best one.

Less is more.


Elevated railways next week.


  1. Did you 'shop the bottom ones? They certainly look better.


  2. Yes. In this case it's not less, just the same content rearranged, but the whitespace is better. I would have put more, by spelling out the name of the NEW JERSEY AND NEW YORK BRANCH, but the letters were not available in the image :-)