Penned down: 26 SEP. 2016

Visual complexity

Is the Mumbai rail map complex? Can “it be simplified”?

Visual complexity is broadly defined as the level of detail or intricacy contained within an image (Snodgrass & Vanderwart, 1980). It has been suggested that perceived complexity correlates positively with the amount of variety in a picture (Heylighen, 1997) and that it corresponds to the degree of difficulty people show when describing a visual stimulus (Heaps & Handel, 1999). 
Often we are asked this question, “the rail map appears too complex’’. The complex here is referred to as, complex in its appearance, i.e. visual complexity. The novice passenger will be overwhelmed by the information density of the map. Can you make it easy for the first time user?” Therefore this note to understand the visual complexity and its relation to familiarity (repeated occurrence).

Anxiety of the First time User

We become first-time users when we travel to a new country. A few months back we travelled to the USA and landed at the JFK International Airport in New York. We were expected to take the subway from JFK to downtown Manhattan. When we encountered the subway map, a diagrammatic representation of the network with all its lines, colours and its station names, it seemed too complex to process.

The map/diagram appeared like a vast ocean of visual and textual elements jostling for space. This visual appearance of these elements coming together is obviously overwhelming. It creates a feeling of anxiety and fear for the first time user. Strangely the fear seems to disappear over time as this user travels more and more by subway and gets acquainted with the network. Someone staying in New York from his childhood would be less likely to be overwhelmed by the MTA subway map compared to a first time visitor (See Image. 1).
NewYork Subway map
Image 1: This is a part of 22” x 32” print map of the New York Subway. Does it appear too complex? Can it be simplified? // Extra read about the Michael Hertz designers of New York Map
In his book ‘Living with complexity’, Donald Norman mentions about the mess on Al Gore’s office desk that is perfect for him but not for a stranger entering his cabin. There is an underlying order (of how things are arranged) to which Al Gore is familiar with, but the stranger entering his cabin is not.

If we draw an analogy to the mess on Al Gore’s office desk towards the arrangement of elements in a map; then the map for a novice is obviously complex. But as novice begins to travel on the rail network, he understands how the map is laid out. Over time, the visual complexity seems to disappear and the content becomes approachable. Isn't it strange? This is because, with frequent travel, his conceptual model about the network as a whole gets resolved.

Similarly, we found that people who have lived in Mumbai and have travelled on the network are not overwhelmed by the appearance of the map, in comparison to a person who has never been to Mumbai.

“Familiarity and perceived complexity seem to be related.”
– Mandar Rane

First time users: Novices

The description of the first time user cannot be rendered monolithic, as it has its own facets and variables. Therefore, understanding him seems to be critical. Let's articulate how may kinds of first-time users can exist because their past knowledge and experience will affect the manner in which they would process information. Whenever we design something for someone, we try to describe our audience. Describing the audience helps us rationalize our design decisions. The larger the number of users we accommodate the tougher it is to crack the solution. In the design of public information systems, we cannot eliminate any section of the user group and therefore solutions should be inclusive and universal.

Types of first time users:

1. User is comfortable with reading one of the three languages (English, Hindi, or Marathi).
2. Understands use of alphabetical order or does not (requires training). 
3. Knows how to read a map using the index and the grid or has no idea.
4. Was taught how to read a map but cannot recall.
5. Has travelled on the other rail line network but never travelled in Mumbai Locals, or has never travelled on any train network ever (just landed).

Functions of and expectations from the MRM print map.
What should the first time user seek from the map? Ideal expectations.

1. Search/locate, current station or journey start station.
2. Search his destination station.
3. Get to know the station codes and the line on which the station lies.
4. Track the route from starting station to destination station.
5. Transfers on the charted route (If any).

Reducing anxiety

There are two ways that reduce the fear or anxiety of reading a map.
1. The ‘You Are Here’ indication on the map acts as an anchor point that the commuter uses to orient himself within the map. Once the user is oriented then he/she knows where to start from. A point to start from is the most important since these are (YAH) You Are Here maps. All maps should have a YAH if they are posted at a location.

2. The index and the cross-reference grid are tools to reduce search time to find the desired stations by limiting the area of search to a confined space. (In the MRM map we did not use the alphanumeric grid because it was found that people could not visualize and track the x and y relationship of the alphanumeric grid (eg. A3, B4). To make it easy for the user we used the box grid. The index has a number written adjacent to the station eg. Dadar -13, ie. Dadar station lies in the box 13)
This means that if the user knows how to look for information on the map, anxiety will reduce. Anxiety is not only about reading the map, but can be about how to travel, what is the fare and how do I get the ticket, when and where is my train. When more information is hidden from the user the more uncertain and anxious he will be. That means not providing a map (information) at the station is, to begin with, uncertainty and invite anxiety. In India, we say people manage. People manage because they have no choice. The truth is that they have to.

Rail Maps as network Diagrams.

What does the designer of the map do to reduce the anxiety of a novice?
Designer of the map cannot delete/reduce the information content to resolve visual complexity. He uses visual (syntactic) techniques to simplify and abstract geographic detail in order to ease comprehension. He prioritizes information and creates layers as per the user needs.

In other layout tasks, the designer has the freedom to reorganize the elements to ease readability. In a map, the position of visual elements are fixed to their geographic location and if the designer tries to modify the geography to his benefit then the geography gets skewed. This modification of geography into a geometrical diagram is an act of creating a fine balance between reality and abstraction. This is the challenge that a designer grapples with. Doing away with geography completely or modifying it beyond an extent can create problems in comprehension for the viewer and therefore the designer should be extremely careful.
In 1972, while designing the NY Subway map, Massimo Vignelli grossly distorted the 1:3 rectangular proportions of Central Park into a square. Commuters protested against the misrepresentation and in 1979, the map was changed to a geographically more accurate one. Vignelli had taken this liberty due to the disparity in the number of stations along Central Park and Midtown, but for the commuters who used the NY grid of blocks to orient themselves, this was confusing and disconcerting. [1] 
Masimo Vignelli
Image 2: Part of the New York Subway map, designed by Massimo Vignelli, which shows the Central Park (area marked in grey) to be squarish, a distortion of its almost 1:3 proportions (see Image 1). Watch Massimo’s comment on his design of the New York subway map.

The map for first time users will appear visually complex, no doubt.

Once the user knows how information is organised on the map, visual complexity seems to disappear. To find a word in the dictionary can be very difficult if you don’t know the use of alphabetical order and the method of searching. The method of reading the map using the station index and the grid, therefore, needs to be taught. “Complexity can be tamed through three things: intelligent organization, excellent modularization and structure as well as training of the (user).” - Donald Norman [2]

Imagine encountering the New York Subway Map for the first time and the anxiety it will create. No wonder that the MRM also faces the same. Familiarity and repeated encounters build as well as changes perceptions.
1. Bierut, Michael. “Mr Vignelli’s Map”. The Design Observer Group. 10 Oct. 2004. Web. 1 June 2015.
2. Norman, D. A. 2011. Living with Complexity. Massachusetts: MIT Press, Pg. 5

MRM Book Team:

Mandar Rane
Prof. Mandar Rane
Communication Design
Faculty IDC, IIT Bombay
Hriday Gami
Hriday Gami
Research Associate  
Alumnus DoD, IIT Guwahati
Chapter title:
2. Don't you think the MRM is too complex 
Book: Design of the Mumbai Rail Map
Discussions about concerns, systems and methods of designing a rail network map for India.

Second Edition // 6 Feb 2018
Binding: Perfect Binding
Printing: Digital
Type: Paperback
Publisher: Mrane publications
Author: Mandar Rane
Pages: 72 (including cover)
Language: English ISBN-13: 978-93-5288-263-2
Product Dimensions: 14.8 x 21 cm
Quantity: 1
Combined Package Weight: 126 gms