Some graphical paradoxes in the design of subway maps: The case of the Madrid Metro 2007–2018

Bianca Holtschke

Punctum, 4(1): 79-104, 2018
DOI: 10.18680/hss.2018.0007


The subject of this article is a set of twenty different metro-maps of the city of Madrid, published between 2007 and 2018. They serve their purpose as navigation aids to public space in such a remarkable diversity of design that one could easily assume that they represent different cities. This phenomenon illustrates what Jacques Bertin calls the ‘basic graphic problem’, ie. that ‘graphics offer an unlimited choice of constructions for any given information’ (Bertin 1983: 100). Nevertheless, there are also significant similarities: all these maps show network-like structures with two types of objects: places (knots) and connections (edges). The main priority of all maps is the relation between stations and route sections. Therefore, it is remarkable that the real spatial relations are indicated differently on each map, from more realistic ways to highly abstract ones. In none of the maps can a naturalistic similarity be found. The act of transcribing the object ‘city’ into the medium ‘map’ must rather be seen as a new constitution. Every map is made within the scope of the graphic inventory – like arrows, lines, etc. – newly constituted under the premise of the relevant relations. At first glance, it can hardly be decided which map is most suitable for its intended purpose. Do these variations result from a contingency that is necessarily implicated in any act of design? Therefore, is there always a non-operationalizable residue in design that cannot be reduced to the semiotics of maps? The paradoxical relationship of contingency and translation in design can be identified in this material residue. A sign is not necessarily linked to the signified but always has a surplus meaning. On the other hand, what is the irreducible element that must be contained in all maps of the Madrid metro system as their non-contingent core? In light of the premise that there can be no correct or complete transcription of Madrid’s metro system, our attention is focused on the relations between the object and its representation. Our hypothesis is that each map generates a different image of the city of Madrid. Every transcription has its pluses and minuses, entails benefits and losses. But the dissimilarity with the object must not be regarded as a defect. Rather, an epistemic surplus can be seen in every new construction as a way of graphic worldmaking.

KEYWORDS: schematic maps, map semiotics, graphic design, cognitive design, abstraction, pragmatic design
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