Going underground

Our reading and writing group project for March was to select a chapter from the book The Power of Partnership , read it and respond. We will publish the responses over the coming week.

An image of the original underground map

In their chapter The experience of partnerships in learning and teaching: a visual metaphor Kelly E Matthews talks about the messiness of working in partnerships and presents us with an image that is, indeed, very  messy!

At the same time, the image is bold, brightly-coloured and connected. Matthews argues that images, rather than simply words, offer “space to affirm the messiness of an idea, an aspiration, a practice, a pedagogical praxis, and a commitment”. And her provocation to us is “How is your partnership messy?

So what visual metaphor would I choose? A London underground map. Yes, that most cited example of design providing clarity, but at the expense of accuracy! That masterpiece of compressed design overcoming messiness! So, how does this provide a visual metaphor for messy partnership working? Whilst acknowledging that messiness, I do think that at some point – in order to move forwards/backwards/sideways – we do need to step over, outside, beyond that messiness.

It is worth reading about how Harry Beck used design to bring some level of organisation and clarity for fellow travellers – how he surfaced the underground detail. Apparently he wasn’t commissioned to do the work. Anna Renton, senior curator at the London Transport Museum says that “It was more a demonstration of his ingenuity, in seeing a problem and coming up with a solution to it, rather than a response to public demand”. Alternatively, I suppose his actions could be viewed as rather presumptuous! What right did he have to decide how to impose order? What does this tell us about the power relationships of the day? But I am going to put this well-trodden ground aside for the moment. Beck did his design and, as it turned out, people didn’t need to know the every detail to move around, to navigate and get where they wanted to go.

Current map of the London Underground
tfl.gov.uk

Recently TfL published a version of the map that shows the walking times between the various stations – in a sense adding back in a layer of that accuracy that was abandoned in that original design. If you want to stay in the fresh (?!) air or experience the bustle of London, this version of the map is great. But I can understand that tourists might find walking around on the busy, noisy, confusing streets of the city a bit overwhelming, and happily retreat back to the clarity. Although if you do want to go between Leicester Square and Covent Garden, trust me, you really don’t need to use the tube!

One of the wonderful things, I think, about the underground map is how it has been adapted and/or subverted over the years. There’s a version that makes links to well-known films and one that links to books. You can use another version to find out where to buy the cheapest pint of beer. If you are a fan of bad jokes, there’s the Punderground. Then there’s the ‘honest’ version – although this one is possibly only funny if you already know London well. There are the versions that aim to represent what an accurate map of the underground.would look like. So many adaptations that you never knew you needed!

So yes, partnership working is messy, but to achieve anything at all we – although who that ‘we’ might be will vary – need to establish some order, I think. But we need to do it in such a way that people find it useful. And we need to acknowledge, accept and even celebrate that others will adapt and subvert that order for any number of reasons.

So my visual metaphor for partnership is the London underground map – thanks Harry!

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