I stopped using London buses when some coward put doors on them. Twenty years ago, you could board any bus headed in the right direction and when it diverged from your intended route you’d jump off and board another. You didn’t need to understand bus routes at all.
Now, when bus doors open only at specified stops, an absurd level of research is needed. It takes five minutes to work out where to wait and which route to take. Worse, buses use the dippy Paris Métro approach (Diréction Porte de Clignancourt) where only the final destination is on the front. This demands unrealistic knowledge of the outer suburbs. Where the hell is Clapton Pond? North? East? From the sound of it, the only reason I might go there is to dispose of a corpse (a task for which public transport is useless anyway: you need a white van or, for a real sense of occasion, a Mark 2 Jaguar).
Unlike the Tube, London’s bus network has never offered what psychologists call ‘cognitive fluency’. The glory of the Underground is the schematic map designed by Harry Beck; this uses names and colours for different lines (better than numbers) and can be translated into decisive action instantly; the economic value created by this map must run into billions.
Yet because cognitive fluency is intangible, its value is often under-rated. For instance, consider the effect of rebranding the London Overground as part of the Tube network. Much of the route existed for decades as the Silverlink train line. But since it did not appear on the Tube map, it was mentally invisible and so unused; ten years ago you felt a bit like Spencer Tracy stepping off the train in Bad Day at Black Rock. Now, as an orange route on the Tube map, it is insanely popular. The rebranding of the line may have contributed more than the new trains.
Last week I heard of another British idea which may be as important as Harry Beck’s in making navigation mentally easy: www.what3words.com divides the entire surface of the earth into 3m x 3m squares and identifies each with just three common words. So the middle of the Spectator garden is what3words.com/liked.foods.loudly — while the front door is take.notes.thus. There are about 60 trillion such combinations available.
If you want to host a picnic on Dartmoor, you can phone or text a pinpoint location to a friend with just three words (there are no homophones, to avoid ambiguity) and guests can use the phone app to find a picnic site at, say, revives.paused.flop. Travel journalists can now provide perfect directions to that hard-to-find beach in Tasmania. Parcel delivery firms can find your letterbox. And the residents of Surrey can arrange to meet after dark in an abandoned lay-by south of Oxshott (sorry for letting my Kent prejudice show for a moment there).
Numerical GPS coordinates are useless in print, impossible to use in speech and completely unmemorable — and one mistyped digit may cause you to invite people to a birthday party 200 miles north of Irkutsk. What this system provides is a mentally salient, super-accurate postcode system for the whole world, oceans included. It is useful in Britain, but in countries which have no established address system it will save lives.
You can also buy (for £1.49 a year) a single-word designation for your own home or office, starting with a star: *spectator, for instance. Or you could move house to a memorably named location. A friend of mine, using the same talent which gained him a first in mathematics at Cambridge, has already established that warm.front.bottom lies halfway between Cleveland and Buffalo.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10