Law and Vignelli

This an old post from 2014 that I published on my old blog, then was republished by Newton Legal. I’m putting it here.

Great designer Massimo Vignelli passed away a couple of weeks ago. An expected outburst of cleverly written obituaries has followed.

They provided food for thought for a couple of posts, not too clever I admit, on links between law and design. This is the first.

The NY subway map.

Everyone cited the well known map of the NY subway, for which Vignelli was equally venerated and criticized. The complete story of that map is here, in an excellent piece by Paul Goldenberger and here, in an even better piece by the New York Transit Museum. The short story is that the map designed by Vignelli was iconic, beautiful and minimal.

“Out with the complicated tangle of geographically accurate train routes. No more messy angles. Instead, train lines would run at 45 and 90 angles only. Each line was represented by a color. Each stop represented by a dot. What could be simpler?”

And Vignelli’s map was so beautiful and minimal that New Yorkers hated it. Why? Apparently the map didn’t respect the relative position of the stations, nor the proportions of the real city. If you wonder what it can entail, Michael Bierut articulates more on this.

“What if, for whatever reason, you wanted to get out at 59th Street and take a walk on a crisp fall evening? Imagine your surprise when you found yourself hiking for hours on a route that looked like it would take minutes on Vignelli’s map.”

Henry Beck's London Map (1933)

Right, but then why people in, say, London, never complained about the Henry Beck subway map, which is as minimal as the one drafted by Vignelli?

I frankly don’t know, but Bierut has an answer: London streets are so tangled, that the subway map, although disrespectful of relative distances, comes in handy to navigate it. Whereas, in NY, “Vignelli’s system logical system came into conflict with another, equally logical system”, the orthogonal grid of streets and avenues which evenly divides the city. New Yorkers could only be disappointed and confused by another geometric grid overimposed on the “orderly geometric grid of their streets”.

Never mind that Vignelli’s map was clearly much better than all the maps which came before, and you can see for yourself here.

First analogy

This made me think about law and legal systems. Laws can never function separately from the society on which they are imposed. They work well if they make life simpler; they are not to be enacted if society goes on perfectly well without them. This is true also of legal architecture. Codes worked well for some time at least in XIX century continental Europe. They wouldn’t work in English Common law system, as they are clearly outdated to cope with XXI century continental Europe as well.

Second analogy

Trying to explain the Vignelli NY subway map Alice Rawsthorn said

“Here, the two maps illustrate the complexity of design’s relationship to the truth. In principle, we cannot be expected to trust anything that is not truthful, yet many of the greatest design feats have set out to deceive us, albeit for good reason. Just as the symbols and characters on your computer screen were designed to disguise the unfathomable mathematical coding of its programs, designers have devised maps to help us to make sense of befuddling terrain or transport networks. Londoners are willing to suspend disbelief when they see Beck’s “diagram,” because it is in their interest to accept its inaccuracies as expedient design ploys, while the New Yorkers who attacked Mr. Vignelli’s map felt deeply skeptical about it. Why would anyone want to redesign such an easily navigable city?”

That is, maps are simplifications that help us make sense of the reality, although we’re always aware they are simplifications (like we know that a stylized design is not the real thing). Law is simplification as well, in the measure it is abstraction. We know that two cases differ in details but we feel should be treated equally, or we feel they should not. The measure of abstraction should always keep society and culture in consideration. Never too abstract, never too detailed. That’s not an easy thing, like it’s not easy to write good pop music, good literature and make good design. All these things are good when they resonate with people. Same must be true for the law.

Third analogy

But in the end, why do people use a subway map to navigate the city in the first place, when a subway map is meant for the subway?

Well, I do it all the time. I carry the tiny London tube map (no, I don’t have a smartphone), and get lost, realize why I got lost (it takes me some time), then blame myself for using the tube map as a real map. And then I keep on doing it. You can’t blame it on people if they use something the way you didn’t expect they could.

Bierut said “As designers, we often fail to understand how people will actually use our work.”

And this is true for laws too. People use design, as they use laws, which are design tools for society. People come first, design and coherence come second. This makes me think of the Italian system (sorry, I’m Italian), where some years ago the Courts denied the validity of the lease back agreement, a totally new figure for our legal system, only because it didn’t respect the internal coherence of the Civil Code (drafted, hey, in 1942)- where, to have a valid agreeement, you must always have a cause (consideration), and that cause must be pre-determined by the legislator.

But what if people already entered lease back agreements? How could you deny the reality of that? Silly and pretentious, isn’t it, to say they were not valid, just because they didn’t fit a frame of mind of 60 years before.

Law is a product for the users. The users should always come first.