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Byline: By GARETH MORGAN Western Mail

A mathematical symbol created by a Welshman almost 500 years ago has been acclaimed as the best design in the history of communication. James Peto, curator of the Design Museum in London, believes that Robert Recorde's simple equals sign - familiar to every school pupil but revolutionary at the time - is better than complex models of the planets or human anatomy.

It even beats iconic symbols such as the London Underground tube map according to Mr Peto, who was speaking at the start of an exhibition on wordless communication called You Are Here.

At a time when we have to absorb more visual information to navigate our increasingly complex daily lives, the Design Museum is exploring the history of information design, he said.

The exhibition ranges from Florence Nightingale's pioneering use of diagrams to show casualties during the Crimean War, to totems of daily life like the London Underground map and British motorway sign system.

But Mr Peto admires the equals sign most and said, 'The fundamental task of designers is to create simple solutions to complex problems.'

When Pembrokeshire-born Robert Recorde first introduced algebra to Britain, his equals symbol was an important time-saving innovation.

And because it used no words, it had the later advantage of being used easily across the world.

'Noe two thynges can be moare equalle', wrote Recorde at the time as he introduced the idea of placing two hyphens in parallel to symbolise the balance of an equation.

The same length, and facing in the same direction, the equals sign was a masterpiece of design but many still preferred two vertical lines until centuries later.

Others used the abbreviation ae or oe (for the Latin aequalis or 'equal') into the 1700s.

But Recorde's unique version was an invention that, while slow in becoming universally adopted, is still perhaps the most fundamentally simple thing ever invented by a person from Wales.

Mr Peto said that a good design was something that people rarely even noticed - only when information is presented in a bad way do we stop to take stock and berate it.

'Information comes at us faster than ever before in a huge range of media - whether or not we need it,' he said.

'Yet most of the time we take the information we need for granted, especially when it is well designed.'

The equals sign - like the motorway maps, bar graphs and pie charts we are so familiar with in modern life - is something we would only appreciate if it was suddenly not there.

'The exhibition asks visitors to consider at greater length the work of those designers who process, manipulate and shape information to ensure that it serves its purpose as efficiently as possible,' said Mr Peto.

It is true that Recorde's other academic works were successful. He was the first to write mathematical textbooks in English. Previous works had generally appeared in scholarly Latin.

He also introduced algebra to English speakers, the word itself appearing for the first time in Recorde's Pathway of Knowledge in 1551.

But Mr Peto is not really interested in language in the context of the latest exhibition.

You Are Here specifically explores how we can communicate without words.

We might associate the 'information age' with a terrifying torrent of linguistic information, but there are many other ways in which designers have sought to ease our consumption of facts.

'When you walk into the exhibition, the first information you will consume will be aural,' said Mr Peto by way of example.

'It is bird song used by the Japanese underground to guide blind commuters to the station exits.': Who was Robert Recorde?:Little is known of Recorde's early years in Tenby, the Pembrokeshire town where he was born in 1510 to parents thought to be of local and Montgomeryshire stock. Clearly something of a prodigy, he entered Oxford University at the age of 15 and was elected a Fellow of All Souls six years later.

Under the Tudor monarchs, talented Welshmen could attain positions of prominence previously denied to them.

Recorde seized his opportunities, becoming an ally of the Lord Protector Edward Seymour who made him controller of the Mint at Bristol.

Political misjudgments were to prove his undoing. In the turmoil following the death of the sickly boy-king Edward VI in 1553, Recorde's old enemy the Earl of Pembroke became the most powerful man in the kingdom. Unwisely, Recorde tried to have Pembroke arrested and put on trial. Pembroke responded by suing Recorde for defamation in 1558. He was held liable to pay Pembroke the then astronomical sum of pounds 1,000. Recorde died weeks later in a debtors' prison.: So what does the Design Museum believe are the other greatest designs of all time that do away with the need for words?:The Underground map: Harry Beck's 1933 Tube map is arguably Britain's most successful and well-known example of 20th-century graphic design, and an internationally recognised symbol for London.

Gerhardus Mercator's world map The 16th century Flemish cartographer bent the earth's continents to fit inside the satisfying rectangle of his map. It was controversial - R Buckminster Fuller later created a map of weirdly angular edges to show the planet in its true proportions. And to stress his point, Otto Neurath distorted the human form, creating a body with an epic scalp, a giant's feet and a tiny waistline.

Charles Booth's London Poverty Maps We are all used to seeing detailed maps, but over a century ago, true-to-scale maps showing the individual buildings were a fairly recent innovation. Against this background, the coloured maps created by Charles Booth to depict the social condition of every London street in 1889 were a startling innovation.

The North-South Motorway Map The annotations of motorway signs and maps have become a way of life but few of us pause to consider how much of that information is transmitted without any need for words.

The Nautical Globe Created in 1954 by Charles Hatch, this is an unique item in the history of globe making. No other globes have been recorded which were designed for the sole purpose of teaching the navigational problems of sailing.

Pictures supplied by: London'sTransport Museum; CSU Archv/Everett/ Rex Features; The Museum of London; Isotype Collection, University of Reading.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 16, 2005
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