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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.


The tension here is between the desire to create something lasting and sustainable on one hand, set against the transient nature of the data being represented on the other. In order to create a “lasting” object to carry information, you need to be fairly confident that the information won’t change.

To follow the tube map example: It has been updated at least three times in the last year, to take in the temporary closure of stations; the re-opening of the East London line and the re-configuration of the Circle line (not to mention the widely-reported non-story of the disappearing river).

With this in mind, a cheap, disposable, recyclable, degradable paper map becomes quite an attractive option. The arguments for and against mobile devices which can be kept up-to-date over the air are more interesting. The pragmatic assumption has to be that many users will have a capable device of some sort anyway (and all the environmental baggage that comes with it), so why not make that a mobile device that can do as much as possible? Mobile devices offer scope beyond that of printed objects in the way they can deliver personalised and live information, so a comparative life-cycle assessment might not tell the whole story.

Everybody has a responsibility towards the environment, not just graphic designers. It frustrates me that “sustainable” design too often results in a niche or boutique product that looks great in Creative Review, but doesn’t match a mass-market need. The best thing designers can do is to develop products that naturally steer their users into more responsible behaviour. To that end, perhaps a few sheets of paper a year might be better than a pair of flip-flops or a mug that will never rot down in landfill?

Thanks for your comment. Just to clarify, I was using the tourist tat as a departure point, and not literally recommending we start designing map flip-flops!

Of course the frequency of alterations to any particular map will make a big difference to the way it is made available to the public. I disagree with your suggestion that there is a dichotomy between 'lasting' and 'transient' however; this is precisely the kind of convention we should be looking to break. So for the tube map: 3 updates in the last year suggests something semi-permanent, rather than permanent. What about materials that biodegrade, but that are more hard-wearing than the paper map? Perhaps a paper/other fibre composite and the result is a nice oyster card holder (thanks to Alice for that idea) or billfold that will stay in good shape until the next map iteration is out?

My point is that we should be looking to rethink completely: new materials, new or re-interpreted objects. What a nice alternative to highly disposable paper leaflets printed in runs of tens of thousands. Mobile access still needs to remain an additional option (not everyone has access), though it presents a kind of trump card for being the most updatable format.

'Steering users into more responsible behaviour' may likewise suggest new approaches. Using the tube again as an example, options might include charging for a copy of the map, or having the maps kept and handed out by nominated members of staff that would act as guides. Passengers could stop and ask a guide for help and/or refer to wall-mounted maps, rather than picking up a paper leaflet. The guide could hand out maps more judiciously, as needed. These experience design solutions might not get you Creative Review but could be quite workable and more efficient.

No clarification necessary; I guess the wry back-reference to the original post didn’t survive hasty typing.

I do agree with the thrust of your argument – designers should absolutely seek to innovate. “Lasting” versus “transient” isn’t black and white – every object and every piece of information has its own lifespan – the challenge for designers is to find a balance without over-engineering.