The Access Guides and the Contradictions of Design

Philip E. Agre
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520

Version of 16 December 2001.
2600 words.


The other day I picked up the 2001 edition of San Francisco Access and was shocked to discover that Richard Saul Wurman's original vision of the once-excellent Access Guides had been dramatically watered down. I find this symptomatic as well as tragic, so I want to explain the problem in depth. First I'll explain the Access Guides for those who haven't seen them, then I'll explain the new edition and what's wrong with it, and then I'll explain what I see as the big picture.

The Access Guides are guides to shops, hotels, tourist attractions, and architectural sites in a city (and a few small regions, such as the California Wine Country). Their great innovation in contrast to traditional tourist guides is that they are organized geographically. Each guide is divided into chapters, the chapters are marked along the right edge of the page for easy opening, and each chapter begins with a map of a neighborhood. Each map includes numbers which are indexed to one-paragraph descriptions of the various places. The descriptions are laid out in a standardized way and color-coded. The book itself has a vertical aspect ratio to make it easy to hold in one hand, and the binding is sewn to open flat. In these ways and more, the Access Guides were an important innovation in tourist guides, and while they do not substitute for traditional tourist guides, they are certainly the first guide that I recommend for someone who is going to live in a city or visit it often.

The Access Guides also announced the new discipline of information design, which Wurman tried to codify (if not entirely successfully) in a series of publications. Information design starts from the user: the inherent structure of a given body of information, the concrete process of using it, the questions a user is likely to have at each step along the way, the detailed properties of human perception and cognition, and the mappings between the structure of information and the structure of its physical embodiment that can make the answers to a user's questions perceptually and cognitively available at the moment when they are needed. For example, if you are standing on the corner of Market and Grant in San Francisco and you want to decide how to kill the next hour before dinner, you can pull out your Access Guide and take a series of steps: open the front cover of the book to the schematic map across from the table of contents, look for the number of the region where this approximate place is likely to fall in (in this case, 3), go over to the table of contents, look up that chapter number (its title is "Union Square"), move to the right edge of the page, pull open the chapter whose pages are marked at that point, flip to the map that starts the chapter, find your intersection on the map, look at the numbers nearby, flip forward to the paragraphs for those numbers, read the paragraphs whose colors match the categories of places you are interested in, choose one, pick out the diamond icon that separates the descriptive text from the address and phone etc so you can call ahead, flip back to the map, find the number for the place you've decided to go, and use the map to guide yourself to that destination. At every step in this procedure, the Access Guide provides you with a readily perceptible graphical convention that answers just exactly the question you have in mind.

The new edition of San Francisco Access, however, wrecks this system. Although the descriptive text has not been radically changed, and the new book still uses the basic system of chapters, maps, numbers, and paragraphs, the original Access Guide's clean and methodical support for the user's cognition has been fouled up. Here are some of the problems:

(1) The inside front cover still has a schematic map in which the various regions of the city are marked with numbers. The map still carries an indication that "San Francisco's 14 primary districts (as marked above) correspond to the chapters in the table of contents on the opposite page)". But the table of contents on the opposite page no longer includes chapter numbers! You can't connect the district numbers to the chapter numbers without counting. And counting doesn't even help you, because the table of contents includes a "chapter 0" called "Orientation".

(2) Having identified the correct chapter number, you can no longer open the book automatically to the correct range of pages, because the pages are no longer marked along their right edges. Instead, you have to match the page numbers in the table of contents against the small page-number markings in the lower-right-hand corners of the pages, or else match the chapter titles against the titles in the upper-right-hand corners of the pages, all of which have been made less legible by a green line that passes through the text. (The old version had the chapter titles in white against a half-inch red bar.)

(3) Once you find the map and locate yourself on it, you will reach the next problem. You will look for numbers around your location, but the new edition employs a much lighter typeface that makes the numbers harder to spot amidst the typographic clutter of the map. In fact the whole book is typeset in spindly new fonts. The paragraphs of black type against white are a little more legible than the colored type in the earlier editions, but the effect on the maps is very annoying.

(4) Now that you've finally picked out some numbers on the map that are close to your current location, you go looking for the associated paragraphs in the body of the chapter. Another obstacle: whereas the old paragraphs were color-coded so that you could rapidly scan the page for only the restaurants or only the architectural and cultural sights, now only the numbers and place-names atop each paragraph are color-coded. So the distinctions among categories do not jump out nearly as easily as before. And whereas formerly the numbers accompanying each paragraph were all in black to ease the operation of scanning for a particular number, now the numbers are all in color so that they no longer stand out as a visual unit.

(5) What is worse, instead of four distinct colors -- red, green, blue, and black -- now there are five colors -- red, purple, orange, green, and blue (black is no longer a color code because all of the paragraphs are set in black). The new colors are harder to tell apart just because there are more of them. Worse yet, the colors are all significantly darker than in the older version, so that they are even harder to discriminate without close inspection, especially in the random lighting conditions encountered by a tourist standing on a street-corner. The red (restaurants/clubs) and orange (shops) are hard to tell apart under any conditions.

(6) The binding on the new edition is sewn, but it is also heavily glued so that it does not open flat. This is exceptionally annoying because the book has such narrow margins. You have to force the new edition open and twist it back and forth to read many of the entries, and the maps that are spread across two pages are essentially useless in the middle near the binding.

The new edition of San Francisco Access, in short, is a disaster that explodes Wurman's original vision. (Wurman sold Access Press to HarperCollins some years ago, but I have no idea if he was involved in the new edition. The new edition credits a completely different set of designers than the old.) What is the problem? The first clue, I would suggest, can be found in the cover design. The cover of the 1994 edition had a bold "SF" above a pillar from the Golden Gate Bridge, along with a paragraph of descriptive text for the bridge much like the paragraphs inside the book. Wurman's name was along the top edge with the phrase "San Francisco" in small type underneath, and the word "ACCESS" in yellow was superimposed on the bottom of the bridge image. The design emphasized the vertical format of the book, the name of the city was highlighted, and the choice of a symbolic image followed the convention of most tourist guides.

The new cover is dramatically different. It divides the vertical space into four rectangular elements. The vertical format is no longer emphasized, and you have to set the old and new editions on top of one another to realize that they have the same dimensions. The word "ACCESS" is now at the top and more prominent than the name of the city. The city is illustrated with a motion-blurred antique photograph of a cable-car (again, horizontal rather than vertical). And the descriptive paragraph is gone; instead, the bottommost panel carries the text "The Only Guide That Leads You Street by Street into the Heart of the City". Wurman's name still appears in a small black square in the upper-left, and a small black-and-white picture of the Golden Gate Bridge appears in a corresponding small square in the lower-right. Whereas the 1994 cover fit with the somewhat garish conventions of other tourist guides, the 2001 cover is understated modernist design.

This is the clue: the new edition is designed in accordance with the current fashion for "clean" modernist minimalism. And while nothing is wrong with modernism as such, the new edition's destruction of Wurman's original vision reflects a tension that runs throughout the history of design. It is common among design people to distinguish between two aspects of design: styling and problem-solving. These phrases are probably self-explanatory: styling refers to the more or less immediate perceptual impact of the design, whereas problem-solving refers to the way the design fits into the activities of the people who use it. Styling and problem-solving need not conflict, but design has been distorted throughout its history by an emphasis on styling at the expense of problem-solving. The reasons for this distortion are clear enough: (1) designers must care about their professional standing, and accordingly they design largely for other designers, whose training equips them to judge styling but who are generally far from the situations where a design is used, and (2) the users themselves are generally ill-educated about the problem-solving aspects of design and make their purchasing decisions in situations where the styling aspects of a design are more apparent anyway. Information design is a resolutely problem-oriented design discipline, and the original Access Guides reflected this. I don't know if they lacked any particular style as a conscious anti-fashion statement, or because they were so concerned to telegraph their functional features, or simply because Wurman was unconcerned with style. And I am sure that the Access Guides could be designed in a way that unites styling and problem-solving rather than setting them against one another. The fact is, however, that the new edition promotes style over problem-solving, and in so doing it trashes many of the features that made the original guides useful.

This tragedy points to a fissure in the tradition of modernist design. Modernist design overlaid a number of themes which were thought to correlate in the early decades of the 20th century. One such theme was anti-historicism. Designers sought to blow away the clutter of 19th-century design, and along with it the clutter of history itself. Some were revolutionaries of the left or right, and others were simply disdainful of social and design traditions that seemed exhausted. They sought to replace clutter with simplicity on two levels. On a symbolic level, geometric abstraction signified a kind of radicalism -- a return to foundations. Every design problem was to be treated as a tabula rasa and worked through from first principles. On a functional level, a rigorous analysis of the designed artefact was supposed to lead to a design that clarified its workings and expressed those workings directly in its structure. Another modernist theme was industrial production. Simplicity of design was supposed to make the designed artifacts easy to manufacture, and geometric abstraction was supposed to lend itself to mass production at the same time that it symbolized the rationality of mass society.

So conceived, the ironies of modernist design were numerous. One was that the earliest modernist designs that glorified mass production were hard to make in the factories of the time; those designs were produced only by artisans in small batches. Another was that the imperative to treat every design problem as a tabula rasa, analyzing the particulars from scratch, soon devolved into geometric abstraction as a design style in its own right. A final irony, which has become clear only in recent years, is that from a manufacturing perspective, geometric abstraction serves largely to economize on information. But new information-driven manufacturing techniques make it straightforward to manufacture objects in exceedingly complex shapes, thus making geometric abstraction simply into one stylistic choice among many.

In retrospect, then, far from being a departure from tradition, the design practices of modernism were themselves tradition of a high order. Geometric abstraction did not solve many problems; its true purpose was to symbolize a kind of transcendence -- the same kind of transcendence that it symbolized for the ancient Greeks. Modernism married Western mathematics-religion with the 20th-century religion of progress through rationalization.

What do these considerations on manufacturing have to do with the graphic design of the Access Guide? The new edition of the Access Guide illustrates perfectly the decadence of the modernist design vision. Information design as envisioned by Wurman embodies the higher principles of modernism: it is rigorously analytical, it considers each design problem afresh in an empirical manner that is driven by the rational relationship between materials and situations of use, and the resulting designs systematically relate structural elements to elements of function. But Wurman's designs are also indifferent to style. Simplicity is a symbolic value for Wurman as well as a practical value, but he symbolizes simplicity not by translating his procedures into an autonomous vocabulary of forms but simply by making those procedures transparent.

In reworking Wurman's vision, the new edition is a missed opportunity on many levels. It could have done so much. It could have rethought the relation between problem-solving and style in light of Wurman's analysis of the practical aspects of cognitive work on the street corner. It could have repeated that analysis and drawn different conclusions. It could even have deepened the analytical framework by reconceptualizing the relationship between information and tourism. It could at least have stood up for the most basic values of quality in the binding. But instead, it applied the modernist canons of clean design in a superficial way, replacing Wurman's loud symbols of information with symbols of understatement that are hard to make out on the page. It scrubbed away the chapter numbers in the table of contents and the thumb-tabs on the right margins of the pages, treating them as extraneous ornament like a janitor who mistakenly carts off a pile of work-documents on a meeting-room floor. It exchanged Wurman's heavy font and bright colors for more subdued models that feel cleaner in the bookstore but that mean nothing once you get out on the dirty street and need to read them. Modernism here has become a rote exercise ten times removed from its origins, reduced from an analytical procedure that stood for a new world to a cliche that stands for the old.