Michael Bierut

Mr. Vignelli’s Map

Detail, New York Subway Map, Massimo Vignelli, 1972

This essay was first published on October 10, 2004.
This week marks the 100th anniversary of the New York subway system, and what better time to recognize the beautiful achievement represented by Massimo Vignelli's subway map of 1972.

I still remember the first time I heard the rationale for this extraordinary graphic solution. Up on the sidewalks, New York was a confusing bedlam of sights and sounds. Below ground, however, it was an organized system. Each line had certain stops. Each stop had certain connections. Getting from here to there wasn't the result of a meandering sojourn, but a series of logical steps, one following on the next like a syllogism. What was happening on the streets was meaningless. What happened below ground — that sequence of stops and connections — was supreme. It was as logically self-contained as Marxism. And, like Marxism, it soon ran afoul on the craggy ground of practical reality.

Like many complex urban transportation systems, the New York subways were aggregated over many years, as a variety of competing businesses (the Interborough Rapid Transit, the Independent Subway System, the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit) were consolidated into a single integrated network. The result was a tangled spaghetti of train lines, a mess of a "system" that was almost comical in its complexity.

In 1968, Unimark International was commissioned to design a sign system for the subways, and out of this chaos came order. Two Unimark designers, Bob Noorda and Massimo Vignelli, developed a signage plan based on a simple principle: deliver the necessary information at the point of decision, never before, never after. The typeface they recommended, the then-exotic, imported-from-Switzerland Helvetica Medium, was unavailable; they settled for something at hand in the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority train shop called Standard Medium. The designs they proposed assumed that each sign would be held in place at the top with a black horizontal bracket; the sign shop misinterpreted the drawings and simply painted a black horizontal line at the top of each sign. And so the New York City subway signage system was born.

Four years later, Vignelli introduced a new subway map. It was based on principles that would be familiar to anyone who appreciated the legendary London Underground map designed in 1933 by Henry Beck. Out with the complicated tangle of geographically accurate train routes. No more messy angles. Instead, train lines would run at 45 and 90 angles only. Each line was represented by a color. Each stop represented by a dot. What could be simpler?

The result was a design solution of extraordinary beauty. Yet it quickly ran into problems. To make the map work graphically meant that a few geographic liberties had to be taken. What about, for instance, the fact that the Vignelli map represented Central Park as a square, when in fact it is three times as long as it is wide? If you're underground, of course, it doesn't matter: there simply aren't as many stops along Central Park as there are in midtown, so it requires less map space. But what if, for whatever reason, you wanted to get out at 59th Street and take a walk on a crisp fall evening? Imagine your surprise when you found yourself hiking for hours on a route that looked like it would take minutes on Vignelli's map.

The problem, of course, was that Vignelli's system logical system came into conflict with another, equally logical system: the 1811 Commissioners' Plan for Manhattan. In London, Henry Beck's rigorous map brought conceptual clarity to a senseless tangle of streets and neighborhoods that had no underlying order. In New York, however, the orthoginal grid introduced by the Commissioners' Plan set out its own ordered system of streets and avenues that has become second nature to New Yorkers. Londoners may be vague about the physical relationship of the Kennington station to the Vauxhall station: on the London underground map, Vauxhall is positioned to the northwest of Kennington when it's actually to the southwest, and it doesn't seem to bother anyone. On the other hand, because of the simplicity of the Manhattan street grid, every New Yorker knows that the 28th Street number 6 train stops exactly six blocks south and four blocks east of Penn Station. As a result, the geographical liberties that Vignelli took with the streets of New York were immediately noticable, and commuters without a taste for graphic poetry cried foul.

And thus it was that by 1979, the Vignelli map was replaced by a conventional, less elegant, more geographically accurate map that persists in revised form to this day. I remember a presentation at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum at which designer Wilburn Bonnell presented this revision as the graphic design equivalent of the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing development: impractical, elitist Modernism succumbing to the practical, flawed imperfections of everyday life. The Vignelli map is remembered today as "colorful and handsome" but also "incomprehensible," a regrettable lapse from good sense, if not good taste.

But it wasn't to me. My favorite souvenir from first trip to New York in 1976 was my very own copy of the Vignelli map, straight from the token booth at Times Square: gorgeous, iconic and cerebral, it represented a New York that didn't care if it was understandable to a kid from Ohio. It hung on my wall, in all its mysterious unknowablility, for the next three years. That was the city I wanted to live in. It still is.

Originally published October 28, 2004

Posted in: Cities + Places, Design History, Information Design

Comment 42  |     |     |   Like 6  |   Tweet 3
Comments [42]
Thanks for the timely post. I've been thinking about the signage and maps of the MTA a lot lately and it was great to read some of the history that I missed by moving to New York just 5 years ago.


Interesting post. I have in my memory a redesign of the NY subway maps at some point by a female/male team and that this redesign also met a similar welcome from the public... I can't seem to find any reference to it.

I believe that system was also not based on a geographic scale, but color was used beyond the train lines, including water represented with green which was one of the main problems the public had with the map. Perhaps someone here has recollection of that?

As I recall, this map was introduced, and almost instantly yanked and replaced by something more like what we have now. It may even be that this map was supposed to replace the standard started in the late 80's and the maps were quickly reverted following the disastrous introduction.

Andrew Twigg

Also: in a related story, there's a designer named Eddie Jabbour trying to get the MTA to adopt his map design.
Andrew Twigg

I'm a fan of the representational subway maps used in Toronto, Prague, London, Montreal, etc., but for some reason I can't get used to seeing the same thing applied to New York. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that (above Houston St.) New York is set up as a strong grid system, with blocks being equal in width and length throughout most of the city. This allows people to get a feeling for relative distance based on knowing an address; "38th St is 50 blocks south of 88th street, and I can see how far a block is, so I can picture how far that relationship is." When I look on a map and that relationship isn't maintained, confusion results.

Also: it would be interesting to see a version of Vignelli's map with the new simpler MTA system of using a colour to relate associated routes like the A, C and E trains.

I forgot to add this link.
An interesting collection from Russia.

I'm on a much needed retreat.
Perhaps until the 1st of the year.
Exhausting all possibilities to get an advance copy of the SAUL BASS Biography.
You'll do just about anything to smoke me out.
Shame on you.

Massimo Vignelli, co-founder of Unimark International, acknowledged as one of the great identity consultancies of the 20th Century. New York City Subway Map is among the greatest design emphemera in the history of visual communication. Simply magnificent in all its glory.
Certainly, set the standard for which other rail systems were measured and judged.

With legendary iIdentity Designer/Consultant
Bob Noorda, created the semantics
for the Signage System. It was the rebirth of Unimark International.

I was fortunate enough to get a copy of an aspect of MTA's Identity Standards from good friend Roger van den Bergh. Renowned Identity Designer/Consultant.

I always thought our Subway System Maps in D.C. were designed by Massimo because he was commissioned to develop and design the kiosk / pylons. Thanks for educating and enlightening me: Wyman and Cannan designed our Subway System Maps.

Another instance where DESIGN GODS are
Superior to Mavens.

Bill D:
You're still a Maven.
Not quite a DEITY.

It seems to me that criticizing Vignelli's map for not being true to the above-ground City is like faulting the Baseball Hall of Fame for not meeting the needs of football fans. Every representation is defined by what it compresses or leaves out, and those elisions are made with a specific user in mind.

Off to eBay to look up prices on Vignelli maps . . .

d stanton
Dave Stanton

Fascinatin' trip down memory lane, tks. And a lovely evocation of what the map meant to you. I guess I'll play sole dissenter here, though -- I thought the Vignelli map was a disaster, and disliked it from my first encounter with it. Appealing, if you liked pop art supergraphics, which I didn't. But confusing as hell, and far more intent on looking good (or at least striking) than on being of service. Its lack of correspondence to my surface experience of the city was a source of endless annoyance to me. For one thing, it overlooked what some people in the subway use the subway map for -- to get their bearings in the above-ground world. Not at all uncommon to see people unfamiliar with a neighborhood consult with the subway map before going up to the sidewalk. And Vignelli's map was useless for that. Plus, it was just confusing. Even traveling underground I could sense its lack of correspondence to the space I was really traveling through. I confess it struck me even then as Bad Modernism. But glad to know some got a kick out of it.

Curious about one thing: who says that those of us who disliked the Vignelli have no taste for visual poetry? Perhaps we have a taste for different kinds of visual poetry, or we see as much poetry in "utility" and "accuracy" and "helpfulness" and "comprehensibility" as we do in "strikingness." I dunno. I tip my hit to the current subway map, which I find useful, helpful, and plenty attractive -- a triumph of design, at least in my book.
Michael Blowhard

Michael, of course you're hardly the sole dissenter, but actually in the majority, The pleasure I take in the map has to do with the way it was first explained to me. What, you say that Central Park isn't actually shaped like that? "The actual geography doesn't matter. The only thing that matters are the connections." No reality, just connections! To me, this denial of our mortal coil seemed positively spiritual.

As designers, we often fail to understand how people will actually use our work. The problem at hand (how can I clearly render all these daunting complications in a simple way?) leads to a solution like the 1972 map, which is absolutely brilliant and absolutely abstract. Then the users ruin everything by carrying it up to ground level and trying to walk around with it in the sunshine.

I suspect that the map was conceived as a direct extension of the sign system, also by Vignelli, which preceded it by several years. Posted on trains and on station walls -- and safely kept out of peoples' hands -- the 1972 map would have worked fine.
Michael Bierut

The one time I've been to New York was back in April 1986, for 3 days, as a stopover between visiting friends in Stamford and the cherry blossoms of D.C. A helicopter tour of the Statue of Liberty was the highlight of my short stay. I'd been warned to stay away from the N.Y. Subway. Friends who knew I had had no problem using the London Underground or the Paris Metro, assured me it was nothing like the two so I didn't acquire a map of the system.
Speaking of confusion though, I remember it taking a while to get used to navigation in London's 'tube' after living in Paris for 2 months. That was a problem of acclimation; learning the general logic of each system of wayfinding through signage in tunnels and graphics on maps.
Confusion caused by having the topographic and typographic, if you will, not correspond is to be expected. This is one place you really need to be, at least, bilingual : )

I suspect that people's use of the subway map aboveground may simply be due to the fact that it is free and readily available. Was this always the case?

Two other small issues with the wayfinding as it is now in the subway--neither, I'm afraid, much to do with the map per se, but perhaps the centennial is an occasional to fix some other design/usability flaws.

First, would someone please plaster the dang map along the platform in every station? What benefit can there be to only posting the map outside the turnstiles? Once you're through the turnstiles, you've got to get on a train to look at a map (unless you're carrying one with you, in which case you're probably a tourist and most likely lost).

Secondly, though I wouldn't fault Vignelli for the signage placement as it relates to our contemporary trains, but something needs to be done to align the station signs so that you can actually see them from inside the train. Signs at knee-level on the platform pillars, though silly-looking, would be a masterpiece of wayfinding to someone sitting, or standing, inside a train.

Thanks to Michael for this post. I've always loved the London Underground map, but it was a rotten way to learn how to get around the city for someone who grew up in the provinces. For example, I always used to take the tube from Leicester Square to Covent Garden, until I discovered (by cycling, walking, and catching the bus) that one was just 4 minutes on foot from the other. Anyway, there's a wonderful Flash file here that shows how the tube map differs from the "Real Underground" (scroll all the way down the page to 'History'; I'd also suggest skipping the Intro.)
Matt Soar

Sam: it is plastered along the platform, but sadly, usually only once and not near any sign that says "Map Here!". If you walk the length of the entire platform, though, you should be able to find one.

Because the system is so idiosyncratic, as others have pointed out, we do need a map which allows for and elucidates those idiosyncracies more than we need a map that seeks to overcome them, that seeks to iron them out.

Previously I had thought of Vignelli's signage system, primarily, and the map vaguely as something that New Yorker's, and probably Americans in general, were just too perverse to accept, to really go along with. Often we seem to rebel against doing things logically and sensibly like having trains run on time and signs accurately mark our way. Either we always have too many competing interests or we simply like a bit of disruption and chaos. It is certainly something people appreciate about New York, that it is messy and there are a lot of cracks between which odd and interesting things grow. But Vignelli's map itself seems to leave out some sense in favor of its own idiosyncracies. It embodies its own perversities.
Trent Williams

Anyone not from New York wanting to see the magnitude of Vignelli's map can find it here.

There's also a reproduction of Vignelli's map in the highly acclaimed book, Graphic Design: New York, page 15. Written by Steve Heller. Published in 1992. Organized by Michael Bierut and William Drenttel.

Off Topic: Always wanted to know, why Siegel and Gale were not featured in this book ???

Michael, thanks for sharing the inaccuracies of Vignelli's map and the London Underground Transit Map. If memory serve me, Milner Gray was Identity Consultant on the project too.

Almost certain artistic license is taken with most Cartographic Design.

It's unimaginable someone would try to use a Rail System Map to travel a city. Not from New York
the purpose of the any rail system map is to accuarately disseminate destinations and transfer point(s). New York's Map is very similar to D.C. Designed by Bill Cannan and Lance Wyman.

Very similar to Vignelli's model. Color coded, representing each line. Blue line, Red Line, Orange Line, Green Line, and Yellow Line. The map show departure and destination routes.
Quite frankly, pretty elementary.

Because I'm not from New York, don't understand the trouble with understanding Vignelli's original.

You guys don't know a disaster when you see it.

Wanna see a disaster? D.C. has received kudos and accolades for cleanliness of its rail system.

The architect of the Washington Metro is Harry Weese, Designed 1968. The Signage System was totally Swiss, designed by Massimo Vignelli. Whom created kiosk/pylons. Which represented color coded schematic departure and destination of each rail traveling within the station. Recently, some ASSHOLE decided to revitalized the signage system. Times Roman text was added to a totally Swiss Signage System.

Several years ago. electronic signage systems were incorporated to provide travelers with departure and arrival of trains. Similar to airports.

As an Identity Designer/Consultant, I have to listen to these imbicilespontificate how marvelous and wonderful the new Metro signage system is. Any idiot with a modicum of intellect is aware you don't mix serif typefaces in an Swiss environment.

Off Topic:

Michael, I noticed while looking through Graphic Design: New York. Lippincott & Margulies used
ITC Garamond for the Tagline in Western Union Identity Revitalization 1990.

Not sure who worked on the project. I'd like to hear Legendary Identity Designer Jerry Kuper rationale of using the face.

Not sure if Jerry Kuper was with SAUL BASS, Landor, or Lippincott & Margulies at the time Western Union was revitalized. I mention this because Mr. Kuper recently posted on Jessica Helfand's "The Rodneydangerfieldization of Graphic Design: Part I."


Maven, I do think that the Vignelli map ran into two problems, one general, one specific to New York.

The general problem is that when you give travelers a free map, you can't stop them from using it. Even though it was a transit map, I'm sure many people tried to use it to get around at street level. I'm no fan of the appearence of the current map, but I have to admit that it's possible to use it figure out what stop you need to get to an obscure intersection on the Lower East Side. Not true for the Vignelli map.

The specific problem has to do with New York's grid system, which made the 1972 map's inaccuracies too glaring. In London, the non-orthogonal street grid makes the mental relationship between the Kennington Station and the Vauxhall Station (as noted above) vague and flexible. Twenty-five years later in New York, according to the New York Times, people still remember that "to preserve its aesthetics, [the 1972] map put the 50th Street stop on the Broadway line west of Eighth Avenue, far from where it belonged."

(Thanks to Kerrie Powell, by the way, for pointing out some of the anomalies in the London Underground map.)
Michael Bierut

It is most unfortunate that company politics and ego play a role in the dismissal of vignelli's subway map. It is politics that adds harm than good in the creative decision making process. It is politics that hires the unqualified person to do a job that requires a highly seasoned person, skilled in design, who can make sound design decisions.

Maps, especially those for transportation systems, need to weigh the benefits of geographical accuracy and informative usefulness. While the Vignelli map of 1972 succeeds on the latter count, it falls far short on the former.

I'm a recently-arrived New Yorker, and a former resident of Montreal and London. (I only mention this because it has some bearing on what follows.)

The success of the London Underground map is in its portrayal of an exceedingly complicated system in a way that is mostly accurate and mostly useful. Nobody should try to navigate London based solely upon the Underground map; the tangle of name-changing streets requires that every Londoner own an A-Z, the above-ground guide which complements the Underground map.

Because it is — from 14th Street up — built on a grid, Manhattan can pretty much be navigated using the present Subway map, which was not the case with Vignelli's map, as Michael pointed out in his original article. The present map, while not as extraordinary as a graphic solution, is at least mostly accurate and mostly useful, if a little congested. (But then, so is New York City.)

When I was growing up in Montreal, the Metro map was very clean, mostly accurate, and mostly useful. It's one huge conceit, which is still a conceit of most Montreal maps, was depicting the island rotated approximately 45 degrees clockwise. (Not a problem, unless you're trying to navigate by the position of the sun in the sky.)

All of which to say: While I appreciate the beauty of the Vignelli map as a piece of graphic design, I'm shocked by its shortcomings as a piece of "truthful" information design. Keats wrote, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know," but he died before the Underground or the Subway went into service.

I've recently completed a NYC subway map that I'd like you to comment on.
tried to show all the lines like the Vignelli map but without the geographical distortion
want the reader to quick-scan the stops without having to slow-read every station stop like in the present map...

You can view the map here

map size: 11" x 14"

let me know all thoughts - thanks

Eddie Jabbour
Eddie Jabbour

Well, it's easy to look back with today's knowledge of information design, fractals, accessibility, etc. and criticize Vignelli's work, but that's no fun. The real fun is in designing a map today that is as graphically appealing as Vignelli's, perhaps in a web version (that could one day be converted to digital paper) that would zoom in like Mapquest to show underground and overground positioning, somewhat like those great see-through man/woman pull-apart sculptures that helped us learn biology long ago. Whadd'ya think?
Marilyn Langfeld

Marilyn, your dreams are answered! This map received the Design Distinction award in the most recent I.D. Annual Design Review (July/August 2004). Also check out the Flash Demo; it looks pretty neat.
[Amusingly for those following a concurrent discussion on this site, the map can be purchased from the Terence Conran Shop. And the MoMA Stores, of course.]

Thanks, chester. It's exactly what I had in mind! I can't wait to see it do it's magic. Ordered a couple.
Marilyn Langfeld

Eddie, What I do like about your map is the multiple lines, showing clearly where each variant goes. Never having used it, I don't know how practical it is, though. By the way, your map was noted in comment 3.
Marilyn Langfeld


Many thanks for clarification. I did read the
inaccuracies in your Editorial.

Thoroughly understand your candor with observing artistic license taken by Vignelli.

In D.C. we have two maps. A system map, which is
a schematic of the rail system. The other, an area map. The area map is more cartographic and
is superimposed with the system map. To give an
accurate assessment of rail routes and the city.

Only the system map is given to predestrians. The area map is on display within each Metro Station. Beside the system map.

I've alway wondered how accurate D.C.'s system map. Never put it to the test.

I'd much rather live with Vignelli's artistic license.
Opposed to living with a now Bastardized
Signage System.
which was once the Hallmark Of Excellence. Designed by Massimo Vignelli.

Referencing, the imbiciles in D.C. that incorporated Times Roman into the Signage System.

Clarification: I love Times Roman, in moderation, and in text type. Not in a Semantic Swiss Environment.

Akin to mixing, Houndstooth with Glenplaid; Argyle
with Paisley; and MISSONI with Jhane Barnes.

No rational person would ever commit these sins.
Fashion Fo-Pah.

here is a comparison of the world's underground systems to scale
Andrew Breitenberg

Dear Friends,
How can I remain silent in such a heathed debate about NY Subway Map? I would like clarify just a few issues that
will help to better understand the project.
When we were asked to design a new subway map, we devised a system of four maps to convey the proper iniormation :
1 A System Map
2 A Geographical Map
3 A Neighborhood Map
4 A Verbal Map
All these maps were to be posted in the stations, so that complete information could be provided to the people using the subway.
The System Map was only concerned with providing information from point A to point B.
The Geographical Map provided information, including MTA stations, on a real topographical context.
The Neighborhood Map provided information about the area
around the station at street level.
The Verbal Map decribed how to reach a destination, which train to get, where to change, and when to get out.
Samples of all these maps were done, but not implemented.
Only the System Map was implemented. Instead of dumping it would have been better to implement the system of information, rather then trying to overlap all those semantically different needs into one map, as they have done.
The System Map we designed obviously had some faults
which were inherent with the direction taken, but we thought
at the time that the overall result was more relevant then the discrepancies found here and there in the map. After all,
we had in our project all the other maps to cover all the other needs.
As it stands, I agree with the positive comments the map has received through the years, and I regret the whole project was never implemented as it should have been.
I hope this clarification will help to set things straight.
Massimo Vignelli

By the way, many congratulations for posting Andrew Breitenberg's comparative scale maps of world's main metropolitan transportation systems, a very interesting and rare piece of information. Great !
Massimo Vignelli

Mr. Vignelli:
Can you post the geographical map that was done but not implemented? Thank you.
Eddie Jabbour

You can pick these old maps on eBay. I got a beat-up 1978 edition for only $8. I just missed out on a 1972 version, similar but so much cooler for it's inclusion of the now demolished IRT line 8.
Thomas Locke Hobbs

When I was a student at Parsons in the late 70's this map kept me company every day as I became an eager voyager through the city's tunnels. I learned my whereabouts, got lost -and then found again -with this thing folded in my pocket. The way I saw it, this map was the measure of what graphic design could do to make obscenely complex information both understandable and delightful. It remains one of the things I love about New York to this day and is a proofpoint of the city's endless ability to turn cacophony into music.

It also remains a benchmark for our some of our colleagues who still believe original design thinking must look as if was done by a ferret on a double espresso.

Onward, Mr. Vignelli!

Brian Thomas Collins

I find it very interesting to read about the actual use of Mr. Vignelli's map as I come from a generation (no hard feelings) that knows only the current design (blah). I wish more than anything for the MTA to scrap the current and revert back to Vignelli's beautiful design, one that adds simplicity to a most complex system underground. Obviously, I am not holding my breath, it seems that the thinking behind the current map was: the more the better. Perhaps the current map contributed to the fare hikes, dissuading riders from using the subway system due to the complexity forcing them to take a taxi. Farfetched, I know, but why not place blame? That said, Mr. Vignelli, I look to your work in admiration and inspiration and find your maps a work of genius. Thank you!
Lenny Naar

I am surprised that not even Massimo himself mentions one important thing: his map is not a map but a diagram. As was Harry Beck's design for London Underground and my own for Berlin Transit. I've designed a few of these diagrams as well as corresponding maps for overground transport like Buses and Trams, and there are a few rules I have found to be useful:
1. You cannot represent absolute distances, but you have to present the information algorithmically, i.e. the positions of locations relative to each other have to remain. For instance: A place to the northwest of another one has to be shown to be northwest of it on the diagram, regardless of its absolute distance.
2. Type on transit diagrams has to be horizontal. Tilting it to 45 degrees became very fashionable in the early 70s, but it was and still is a disservice to readers. If you cannot make all type horizontal (as well as upper and lower case), you've failed.
3. One diagram, however perfect, cannot replace a comprehensive, integrated system of information. Massimo is quite right in pointing out the fact that he designed a system, but the client only published a map. Passengers need different density of information at various steps along the way, from a system overview outside the station/stop, a line diagram outside the turnstile, to a diagram for the line you're on along the platform and inside the train/vehicle. Plus neighbourhood maps and information about connections and other modes of transport at the destination.

The problem for us is always that the success of our work gets judged not by our good intentions, nor our grand plans, but by what gets implemented. And that, more often than not, happens without and sometimes even against our advice. If anybody ever travels Berlin or just looks at the diagrams and maps we designed there over 12 years ago, don't blame me. I delivered ideas, artwork, data and a lot of good intentions, but they never involved us when it came to actually producing signs or printed pieces. Massimo produced a great design which was rendered less than useful by others who didn't quite have his vision.

And lastly: Standard Medium (aka Akzidenz Grotesk) is far superior as a signage face to Helvetica Medium. A shame that the present system has defaulted back to a typeface which is totally unsuited for signage. But that's another story...
erik spiekermann

Sure says something about having to adjust design to accomadate different cultural interpretations.

Simplicity doesn't always portray clear interpretation.

Dan Spence

The fact that designers are being judged on what is accepted by the client and not what is proposed is quite interesting. But once again the word "designer" is tossed around far too frequently and mingles too close w/ "decorator". Many solutions these days seem to be just decorations, taking a misunderstanding and painting it up for the pony show. A designer takes a clients problem and reduces it to it's most basic state in order to understand it's nature. Then with a raw problem comes a raw solution, a principle, which will preside over every choice made during that project. A solution is then dressed so those we want to talk to will come over for a listen. Designers can not dress a misunderstanding as many decorators do, for as a participant comes to join the conversation, there is nothing to say.

There is no "hope" in design, that is, we have no ability to hope someone chooses one idea or another. The modern client is constantly on a budget crunch, fickle, and unsettled. Tibor, mentioned this now and again, "find smart wealthy clients, and stick by them..... Good clients are smarter then you, bad clients are dumber then you". Unfortunately, the many hills and valleys of this capitalist landscape are sparsely populated w/ such intelligence. A designer has to be aware of this and create the ideal solution, however, we have to ensure our understanding of the problem is such that we can apply the solution, the principle, on any level.

For instance, an architect pitches a building to a client, the client enjoys the idea but can't afford what has been proposed. The client, of course scales it back, this may not have been the ideal, but this new solution must stand and function as well as the first. It is the designer's responsibility to navigate this world as if it were another design problem, to anticipate the budget cuts, idiocy, and laziness that an unsettled client can provide.

Understanding these phenomena in ourselves and our clients can help us to better serve both parties. Hoping a client picks one or the other is a luxury we are unable to enjoy, An engineer can state w/ absolute certainty that a building will stand while a 125 mph easterly gust hits it's south east side and will fail structurally w/ any greater force. He can not hope it will, it simply won't. We must be able to state the fail point of our work w/ as much conviction and certainty and fight tooth and nail to ensure the work never falls below this point.

The failure of a building means rubble in the streets, this is a more obvious problem to a bureaucrat then a misinformed public. Therefore, it is our responsibility to make certain our viewer is communicated w/ properly. A knowledge of our clients situation and limitations serves a subway rider as much as our graphic knowledge.

With proper research, time, and a full understanding of the fundamental nature of a problem, the ability to execute a solution effectively at any level is one that we possess. Truly great design and proper communication are evident regardless of the level of investment because truly great design takes into account the forseen limitations of project.

I think that Massimo fundamentally understood the problem his client asked him to solve; and his solution, even though not represented ideally in it's execution, functioned beautifully.

And this ferret on a double espresso image of Brian's is wonderful!!

Typically, a designer builds an object with the intent that the end-user practices strict adherence to the object's predetermined functions. A designed room should be arranged in this manner and only in this manner; a designed logo should be positioned only in this spot and nowhere else; a designed teaspoon should only be used to stir chamomile tea and nothing else; a designed subway map should only be used underground and never aboveground. In a perfect world, these are realistic scenarios to strive for. Too bad the rest of the world isn't as obsessive as designers. Too bad, also, that the world isn't populated by soulless automatons.

We designers should learn to understand that end-users each have their own set of preferences, prejudices, and requisites. We should not forget that we are designing for people, not robots. A well-designed object, in my book, is one that functions properly and effectively regardless of however the end-user fashions the object to suit his individual purpose. End-user modification of the objects we design is inevitable -- to expect otherwise is nothing less than insulting to the people we are supposedly serving.
Josef Reyes

There's a great book on metro/tube/underground maps - Metro Maps of the World, by Mark Ovenden. Available from

It lists the history of the NYC maps, as well as many others.
Ben Bodien

Very few people know that this map was inspired by Milan Undeground network project.
In 1963 Bob Noorda (Vignelli patner) designer map and signals for the new subway of Milan (opened in 1964). For the first time in the world this subway graphic was ideated by a team of designer. So, after this experience, NY dicided to give work to Vignelli and Noorda (who still lives in Milan)

So you must see original Milan subway project (1964) to understand the power of this idee, bused upon Modernism architectural style. Infact Milan subway was projectes by Franco Albini, one of the must famous Italian Modernist Architect; his subway was named "the great social architecture in Italy" This problaply beacause in 1964 it was the greatest "pubblic building" in Italy.

glm - milan

Nice to see this repost, which reminded me of something that I wanted to comment upon when I first read it. Though you mention a couple of the apparent "flaws" in the design -- such as Central Park being a square -- you will notice that many of these (that one in particular) persist to this day -- an inevitable consequence of Manhattan's layout, and not the essential problem. In fact, as one who actually took the subway almost daily in those days, I can tell you that the Vignelli design simply did not work *as a map.* Its subtle layout of small station dots (unlike Beck's ticks and circles) were almost impossible to read and/or understand -- not only by older people with imperfect eyesight (hundreds of thousands of whom, of course, ride the subway), but keen-eyed fellows like the 17-year-old I was at the time -- who, several times, was fooled into thinking that the 14th Street L line (the LL in those days) had a stop at 7th Avenue (look at the map and you will quickly see what I am talking about). Before, during, and after everything else, a map has to get you where you are going. The Vignelli design, exquisite as it was, simply did not do so.
James Sanders

.....only you can write such a captivating story...but the comments were almost as interesting !
LOVED IT ! an old NewYorker....I yearned to move back ~ after your story transported me in my dreams .......
Ms. Lee H. Moody from Mohawk

I actually quite like the current map. I found this article fascinating and incredibly informative. Learning about the challenges faced geographically isn't something I had previously considered.

Now, if we could just get the mta to redesign their godforsaken website....

Fascinating string these maps elicit. Michael Beirut's point may be one reason: Forster recognised in 1910, Howard's End, the modern credo: 'only connect', and that's what the diagrammatic map does -doesn't inform, only connects. But I have to disagree with Spiekerman's first rule: Londoners like myself adore the underground map not only as a design icon, but - and therefore - as extremely practical, but it blows apart the algorithmical rule. Perhaps it's just that one should add 'as much as possible' - as he says on the Helvetica video, it's the imperfections that make it, and we love the map in part because we know where it shouldn't work - where it's not algorithmical (Westminster due west instead of due south of Embankment, for instance) - but does; works better, in fact, for breaking the rule. We like it, too, because we appreciate the minimal infractions rule at work, and understand, when the rule is broken, why it had to be. By the way, are an interesting and recent development here in London is what Vignelli calls the neighbourhood map imposed on the diagrammatic map to produce what's called the 'spider map'. Hundreds exist, each linking a neighbourhood to its direct bus system branches:


The following passage in your essay seems to imply that Massimo Vignelli was responsible for introducing the rectilinear grid and the route-based color-coding into the New York City Subway Map:

"Out with the complicated tangle of geographically accurate train routes. No more messy angles. Instead, train lines would run at 45 and 90 angles only. Each line was represented by a color."

Neither is correct. The Beckian grid was introduced by George Salomon in 1958, and his subway map was issed by the NYCTA until 1967, when a new map was introduced that used color-coding by route for the first time. The color-coding concept was due to Raleigh D'Adamo, and other design elements were due to Professor Stanley Goldstein and Dante Calise. The 1967 map almost entirely kept the Salomon grid, but did introduce some non-45-degree diagonals. Vignelli's 1972 was an evolution of the existing subway map, not a revolution.

Another assumption that is contentious, to say the least, was that the Vignelli was ditched because it was hard to use. The main driving force for the replacement 1979 map was the MTA's Bill Allison, who wanted a geographic map for marketing purposes. Whether a diagram in the manner of Vignelli or Jabbour is actually better for navigating the subway than the geographic map is still an open question that has not been adequately tested by empirical science. (Dr Arline Bronzaft and Dr Stephen Dobrow did carry out innovative field studies in the 1970s but they were by no means a comprehensive test.)

Peter B Lloyd

Creative Opportunities
  • Twitter Facebook Google+
    Tumblr Pinterest RSS

    Design Observer
    social media à la carte
  • Newsletter signup

  • Design Jobs
    Observer Jobs Spotlight

Places Journal
Mail Chimp