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June 24, 2010

Sustainable information design: check your flip-flops at the next station?

Not long ago, Alice tweeted about a couple of new artistic re-conceptions of the famous London tube map. The map itself has been subject to countless interpretations, to the point that the graphic idolisation of its aesthetic is becoming tiresome. Examples range from those that play on the medium (such as the links above, or this cross-stitch version), to others that toy with the map's distinctive visual syntax (keeping it sciency: like this view of human anatomy or the milky way). There have been too many parodies, spin-offs and visual-metaphor-borrowings to mention. Thinking constructively, these experimental formats hold a promise of being more than fanciful re-interpretations of that iconic piece of graphic communication.


Graphic designers have a responsibility towards the environment. Paper leaflets used in galleries, museums and in tube systems worldwide are usually free and treated disposably. Why not try to minimise waste and the energy required to produce these by re-interpreting the format altogether? To cite very conventional examples, a map printed on a silk handkerchief, or a tote bag, or a shawl has obvious functions beyond being a printed guide. Though this approach may not be practical for very complex or extensive maps, I think that it probably depends on the format itself and the resolution allowed by the technology used to create it. The idea of integrating the display of useful, relevant information with different products could be pushed to its limits.

Thinking about sustainability in this sphere of information design, the well-stocked London tourist shops full of 'tube map tat' such as flip-flops, beach towels and mugs may be the way forward. Imagine a reusable mug printed with the full tube map, one that you might actually fill with coffee or tea and use on the way to visit a gallery! The idea seems so obvious. And why not, since the map has been completely aestheticised anyway. Random everyday objects can, when sensitively and intelligently rethought, become vessels for information that could displace the traditional paper forms of ephemera.

And yes of course maps are also accessible on mobile devices. Different technologies present their own environmental costs however. A comparative life-cycle assessment would confirm whether a map accessed on a mobile device (that uses energy and creates hazardous waste) would be more or less efficient than say, a carryall, a piece of clothing, or a pushchair cover. The idea of 'sustainable' information design could push information designers further into the field of product design than they have previously gone.

June 21, 2010

The NCBE at Reading

The Department of Typography at Reading takes up most of an old wartime edifice which also houses some music pratice rooms (not a bad thing, most of the time) and the small but highly acclaimed National Centre for Biotechnology Education . To the staff in Typography right next door, the NCBE is seldom seen, seldom heard; there are however some fascinating areas of overlap between the two entities, and plenty at the centre to interest several of us graphic communication people next door, especially the ones interested in science, education and diagrammatic representation!

The NCBE is a longstanding (and since the early 1990s, entirely self-funding) research centre at the University of Reading that specialises in the development of educational materials to teach areas of biology such as evolutionary biology and biotechnology. They develop and run workshops, produce (international) literature, and create kits for experiments and activities involving everything from splitting up DNA with various enzymes to growing mushrooms on loo roll (toilet paper for us crass North Americans).

The NCBE's extensive (and non-University branded) website seems to be an important resource. Its pages include full access to publications relating to practical workshops, including well-illustrated teacher and student guides. And there is an interesting though aged commemoration of the discovery of the double helix, which includes a page of DNA ephemera, enough to get the Typography pulse racing in itself! Unfortunately, though the writing is congenial and accessible, navigating through the site feels a bit like wading through porridge. Like many 'mature' websites it contains some legacy components. This probably reflects the NCBE's somewhat oddball status within the University.