Most every dweller of a city with a robust public transit system comes to identify their boundaries with the lines, angles, and colors of its subway map. This is true of my hometown, Washington, DC, at least since the popular adoption of its Metro system in the 80s. It’s many times truer of my adopted city for ten years, New York, whose more than 100-year-old subway system has given urban historians enough material for lifelong study. The history of the NYC subway maps offers a specialized area for students of design, who must surely know the name Massimo Vignelli, the modernist designer who named the DC Metro and created the notorious 1972 NYC Transit map that, writes the MTA (Metro Transit Authority), “reimagined the MTA New York City Transit subway system as a neat grid of colored lines surrounded by a beige ocean.” The map will be familiar, and perhaps even a token of nostalgia, to New Yorkers from the era, who may also recall the complaints the MTA received for the map’s “geographic inaccuracies” and “aesthetic confusion.” Nonetheless, “design fans […] celebrated the map and made it a coveted souvenir of trips to New York. It later became part of the postwar design collection at the Museum of Modern Art.” In the video above, excerpted from the 2007 design documentary Helvetica, Vignelli revisits his transit map design (below), which he adopted from the London Underground map.
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Vignelli, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 83, worked closely with his wife Leila on a wide range of design projects—his motto, “if you can design one thing, you can design everything.” A great many of those subway riders in 1972 may have disagreed. While previous and subsequent maps, including the current design, provide a geographically precise rendering of the five boroughs, with details of major avenues and parks and waterways in simple greens and blues, Vignelli’s map is formal and abstract, more art object than guidepost. As a newcomer to the city, I used my pocket-sized MTA map to guide me around on foot as well as by train (this was before smartphones, mind you), but this would be quite difficult if not impossible with the ’72 version. Yet in his reassessment of the design, Vignelli says that he should have stripped away even the few geographical references he did include because “the people couldn’t relate the geography with the stations.” For Vignelli, “there is no reason why this geography has to be literal, it could be completely abstract.” How this would better help riders navigate the hugely extensive system isn’t at all clear, but what is apparent is Vignelli’s commitment to form over utilitarian function. It’s a commitment that served him very well as a designer, though not, it seems, as a cartographer. For more on Vignelli’s design philosophy, see his 2012 interview with Big Think.