Transit looks to dance along the fine line between graphic design and fine art. At what point of abstraction does a metro map becomes art? When there’s no more text or when cues have been removed? When a more thoughtful palette is introduced or when lines start piling up on top of each other?
The story behind Transit
When my son was just 3 years old he got obsessed with our city’s transit map and he would love to stop at the big map in every station an enquire about the lines stops, colors, paths...
As an architect, I share his passion in the sense that transit maps, to me, are usually the most approachable visual way to understand what cities are like and how they are structured and organised.
I printed an A0 of Barcelona’s Metro map at home and as he meticulously learned all about it he craved for more. So I started showing him transit maps from other cities around the world.
At that point I thought, “What if I were to write an algorithm that gave us endless variations?”.
And that’s how and why Transit exists.
The Process, a manual approach to probability
I started by redrawing the 64 of most relevant transit systems in a shared visual style, by imposing a pre-set of rules on all 64 maps. This provided the colors that could make it into Transit and how often they occurred, how long lines were and how many turns and in which direction each line had.
I published this research portion of the project as Transit Study on Foundation.
Then, I wrote an algorithm that generates lines in similar fashion to the ones that were hand drawn before but making the generated maps much more dense than the original ones for cohesion, variance and to help it make the leap from design to abstract art.
I constrained the start direction and starting area that lines can populate, in order to create a dense area from which a few lines may escape on their way to the canvas edges. Sometimes, this dense area could get emptied out by voids that prevent lines from occupying parts of the starting area, or could get fragmented into multiple clusters that oxygenate the composition, both in the attempt to generate interesting organic shapes through clumps of lines.
To properly explain the colors found in Transit Study, I then created 4 types of palettes, a full color one, an unsaturated one, 7 monochrome ones and 18 city palettes. With the 18 city palettes I explored my personal experiences with those cities while trying to create cohesive-looking outputs. Color distribution could result in all colors being represented in equal quantity or relative to their prevalence throughout the 64 maps of Transit Study. When color clusters are active however, that would turn all lines ending in certain areas of the map into a single color.
To add layers of depth, potential background rivers together with a grainy background were added to contrast with the simple and flat amalgamation of transit lines.
I also played around with different shapes of lines as well as different types of line fills and variable line girths that could be mixed together in a single map to steer away and show an even more clear juxtaposition to real metro maps.
In monochromatic maps, I introduced the odd accent color as well as dark backgrounds sparingly to provide contrast and cohesion.
Finally, to spice it up a little more, for some maps, I moved away from the predetermined lines shapes of Transit Study to force outputs with fixed lines sizes and rotations as a way to exaggerate even further the leap into abstraction.
Transit aims to be in-between the sometimes anonymous and forgotten, sometimes world renowned like Massimo Vignelli, subway map designers and the abstract expressionist brush strokes of Joan Mitchell and Jackson Pollock where Transit’s own brush strokes look random but have an underlying logic beneath them.
On a more conceptual level, we could argue as well how these lines can actually reflect the routes that thousands of people take every day on the subway. These lines capture the human pulse, encapsulating the imperfect lives of many within a rational, functional metro line. However, it’s important to note that their meticulously measured, orderly, and static representation on a map becomes messy and chaotic when confronted with the disorganised and vibrant reality of the city. Urban environments are inherently chaotic, and travel routes are unique and diverse; cities present varying facets depending on the perspective of the observer. Transit seeks to delve into this relationship of a rational, functional, everyday element, transforming it into artistic expression by exploring the endless possibilities that this 2D graphic language enables.
I want Transit to be simple but messy. Fun but structured. To clearly be about transportation but to always leave a “what else?” up in the air. To convey its data and process but to become an artwork in its own right.
I want to show the transition and evolution from metro maps to an aesthetic chaos that’s no longer a map but a generative artwork with unlimited possibilities. To show the contrast between a structured purely functional map and a complex unintelligible tumult of seemingly random lines.
And more than anything else, I want the viewer to recognise themselves and their lives experiences in different cities and to just get lost or inspired by the bold colors and variance across outputs.