23 September 2014

What The London Underground Map Can Teach Us About Design

I have recently come upon a great real world example of good design that you can refer to if you want to improve your presentations. Do you know the difference between the way London and New York designed their underground maps? Here it is.
Notice anything? The main difference I see is that while New York designed a map that’s geographically more accurate, London opted for an abstract design. Which one do you prefer? I’m quite confident most people would prefer an abstract map instead of a version which attempts to reproduce an illusion of reality. The reason being, abstract maps are uncluttered. They show only what’s relevant. Think about it, do you need to see all the lakes and parks of a city when looking at a subway map? You won’t be examined in geography before you get off. The only thing you need to know is where the stations are and how they are linked to each other. 
Before designing anything, we have to put ourselves in the end user’s shoes. We should be asking ourselves “what do we want people to understand?”. In our example, we want people to know which subway line they should take and where they should get off. That’s it. And that’s why a cleaner, uncluttered design works best. London uses a visual language of form, colour and line to create a composition which may exist in the world. Of course out there things are different, but for the purpose of a map it’s absolutely okay to go abstract.

Design lesson for presenters 

When you make a presentation, your slides can be thought of as subway maps. You don’t need to include all the information you have in your mind (all the lakes and parks). Remember, it’s scientifically proven that people are not able to read and listen at the same time. Therefore, including loads of information on a single slide simply doesn’t work. It’s a waste of your time and—most importantly—of your audience’s. What you should do instead is ask yourself what you want your listeners to understand. Once you know this, use only that single takeaway in your design. One main idea per slide is one of the secrets to designing great presentations. 
I know most people don’t feel comfortable with this approach because they think that by including lots of information in their visuals they are proving they've done their homework. However, this strategy never leads to the desired outcome—it only leads to boring and incomprehensible presentations. In fact, the only point they are proving is that they were too lazy to spend time working on their material in order to understand what was relevant to their audience and what was not. 
Knowing one’s material should be a given. I expect every presenter to know his material. There is no need to prove it by cluttering your slides. It might be that you'll have to spread your content out over more slides, and that’s okay. You can still prove you've done your homework even if you use simple visuals. In fact, the simpler your slides the more your audience will think you know your material. Let your design breath by only including what’s relevant to your audience and leave the rest out. 

Instead of showing something like this...

Why don’t you design something like that?
As you can see, I've used two slides with one main idea each. The first slide introduces the main topic; the second shows the three key points I want my audience to remember. 
You might be thinking, “yes, the second version is nicer, but I’m missing a lot of important information”. 
Truth is, you are not missing anything. Slides are there to amplify your message, not to replace it. They help to get your message across only if they are simple and easy to understand quickly. But you are the presentation, not your slides. Certainly, you can and should expand from your design. And that’s something you can do without a visual display behind you. By designing simple visuals you'll make sure your audience will look at them, quickly understand the meaning behind them, and then get back to you to listen to your message. 
If there are any concepts that are absolutely necessary for you audience to know and you can’t include them in your slides otherwise you'd clutter them, you can always prepare a handout where you can include as many details as you like. This is something your audience can refer to for additional information either during or after your presentation. But the visuals themselves should only complement and amplify your speech. They should never substitute for it. Remember, you are the presentation, not your slides. 

With its abstract design choice, London triumphed over New York in the Subway Map Challenge. When I say go abstract in this context what I mean is that for a presentation to be successful you should opt for a simple, uncluttered and minimalistic design. Let you slides breath by only including what’s relevant and get rid of the rest. Your audience will appreciate it.    

I'd love to know your ideas. Let me know in the comments below.

Light Rail by A bloke called Jerm via Flickr
London Underground Map via Diagrams.org
NYC Subway Map via Urban Omnibus
Message in a bottle via Human Rights Commission
Icons from The Noun Project