Summer 2005

An information design theme park without a map

You Are Here – The Design Of Information

Design Museum, London.
12 February–15 May 2005

The exhibition ‘You Are Here’ is not a celebration of new styles, rather a curious journey through the history of information design. It starts with Richard Buckminster Fuller, passing on to Carl Sagan’s man and solar system map for extra-terrestrials, to MacDonald Gill’s version of the London Underground map to the extraordinary expanded pie charts Florence Nightingale devised to relay information during the Crimean War. We then stumble across John Snow’s 1854 map, plotting out a cholera epidemic in Soho, that led to pinpointing the source of the problem to a water pump, an example of Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘tipping point’ 150 years early.

The exhibition then opens into three spaces prescribed by themes such as Mapping, Navigating, Explaning, Analysing and Time, providing a clear example of the curator’s dilemma: drill deep into a subject and miss the opportunity to showcase comparative content; or exhibit a wide-ranging set of examples that provide a glimpse but not a deep analysis of anything in particular? ‘You Are Here’ is an example of the latter.

The first chamber feels a little like a visit to the Science Museum of the mid-1970s, with cases containing elaborate mechanical orbiting models of the solar system, something that fell off the Hubble Space Telescope, periodic tables and further on, a display of human mannequins, adorned with elaborate maps of acupuncture pressure points.

The second chamber space is equally diverse with cursory references to Adrian Frutiger and Otl Aicher’s studies for icons, pieces from the University of Reading Isotope Collection, several beautiful interpretations of New York through different mapping styles, from a three-dimensionally drawn map of the Manhattan skyline to Massimo Vignelli’s subway diagram of 1973 and train-car direction sign rolls. This is supported by a collection of maps, globes, road system signage and Harry Beck’s London underground diagram.

Chamber three is dominated by an interactive video clock which uses digital images of the space in front of the lens to make up an ever-changing representation of seconds, minutes and hours. This is supported by a collection of timetables, tide and weather maps and time-telling devices.

Spattered around the exhibition are a few digital pieces, which really stand out as unusual in what is largely an homage to print. Somehow I was expecting this to be a narrative that would explore the digital presentation of information. However the small number of digital pieces merely draws attention to the missing discourse. It’s also hard to understand the two sound exhibits: the sound of a birds’ chorus at a Japanese railway station and the sound of a London street in 1927, which ironically seem to have lost their way among the other information and mapping pieces. Considering this is an information exhibition, the overall sense of orientation is strangely confused.

There will probably be more important shows to see this year, but it is encouraging to see the Design Museum supporting subjects like this. One could argue with the selection

of material. Many important names and themes seem to be missing, but then again I’m not sure whether luminaries like Richard Saul Wurman, Total Design or Erik Spiekermann, were represented or not. The breadth of material is such that a catalogue or at least a small brochure is surely a must but unfortunately the Design Museum ‘don’t do catalogues – or maps’. Considering the pile of lush bound books on information in the bookstore, some of which are of proven quality, this is an opportunity missed.