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.
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 They wouldn’t work in English Common law system, as they are clearly outdated to cope with XXI century continental Europe as well.
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.
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.