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.