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  • The history of civilization, in some ways, is a history of maps.

  • How have we come to understand the world around us?

  • One of the most famous maps works because it really isn't a map at all.

  • The London Underground came together in 1908, when eight different independent railways merged to create a single system.

  • They needed a map to represent that system so people would know where to ride.

  • The map they made is complicated.

  • You can see rivers, bodies of water, trees and parks...

  • The stations were all crammed together at the center of the map.

  • And out in the periphery, there were some that couldn't even fit on the map.

  • So the map was geographically accurate, but maybe not so useful.

  • Enter Harry Beck.

  • Harry Beck was a 29-year-old engineering draftsman who had been working on and off for the London Underground.

  • And he had a key insight, and that was that people riding underground in trains don't really care what's happening above ground.

  • They just want to get from station to station.

  • Where do I get on? Where do I get off?

  • It's the system that's important, not the geography.

  • He's taken this complicated mess of spaghetti, and he's simplified it.

  • The lines only go in three directions: they're horizontal, they're vertical, or they're 45 degrees.

  • Likewise, he spaced the stations equally.

  • He's made every station color correspond to the color of the line.

  • And he's fixed it all so that it's not really a map anymore.

  • What it is is a diagram, just like circuitry.

  • Except the circuitry here isn't wires conducting electrons, it's tubes containing trains conducting people from place to place.

  • In 1933, the Underground decided, at last, to give Harry Beck's map a try.

  • The Underground did a test run of a thousand of these maps, pocket-size.

  • They were gone in one hour.

  • They realized they were onto something; they printed 750,000 more.

  • And this is the map that you see today.

  • Beck's design really became the template for the way we think of metro maps today.

  • Tokyo, Paris, Berlin, São Paulo, Sydney, Washington, D.C.

  • All of them convert complex geography into crisp geometry.

  • All of them use different colors to distinguish between lines.

  • All of them use simple symbols to distinguish between types of stations.

  • They all are part of a universal language, seemingly.

  • I bet Harry Beck wouldn't have known what a user interface was, but that's really what he designed.

  • And he really took that challenge and broke it down to three principles that I think can be applied in nearly any design problem.

  • First one is focus.

  • Focus on who you're doing this for.

  • The second principle is simplicity.

  • What's the shortest way to deliver that need?

  • Finally, the last thing is: Thinking in a cross-disciplinary way.

  • Who would've thought that an electrical engineer would be the person to hold the key to unlock what was then one of the most complicated systems in the world.

  • All started by one guy with a pencil and an idea.

The history of civilization, in some ways, is a history of maps.

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