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This past week, accomplished designer Massimo Vignelli passed away at the age of 83.  Among his diverse accomplishments, his most well-known is probably the 1972 map of the New York City subway system.  It was a radical departure from previous designs, and attracted a great deal of controversy.  After only 7 years, it was discontinued and replaced by a different design.  It is still remembered, though, as an example of modernist design and shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  Perhaps it also an example of how big changes in cartographic design can incite intense backlash, especially when the subject in question is a space as public and personal as the New York City subway system.

Below is Vignelli’s 1972 subway map design, followed by the current design as used by the MTA:

New York City Transit Authority Subway Map, designed by Massimo Vignelli, 1972 (via http://www.nycsubway.org/perl/caption.pl?/img/maps/system_1972.jpg)

Current New York City Subway map (via http://web.mta.info/maps/submap.html)

Vignelli’s design is a little jarring to our eyes.  He set out to make it easier for riders to see the stops on the subway lines, with straighter routes and bigger fonts.  But he also made some huge changes that are disorienting to people who were used to seeing things a certain way.

For one thing, he did not use green for parks and blue for water, as we are accustomed to seeing.  Rather, he drew parks like grey blobs and used a bland tan-like color for rivers and ocean.  Secondly, he distorted the shape of the city and its above-ground features.  Central Park, for example, looks more like a square than a tall rectangle on Vignelli’s map.  The whole island of Manhattan has lost its distinctive shape and taken a simplified angular shape.  In essence, the city has lost its New York feel, and has become more of a Platonic form of itself.

The design was scrapped in 1979, seeming to confirm that modernist design and subway maps do not mix (at least not in New York City).  The largely negative response to Vignelli’s map showed that it does not matter if the subway lines are easier to read if the larger geography is too abstract and non-intuitive.  Subway riders like to be able to glance at a map and immediately locate themselves to find their way.  Unfamiliar color schemes and shapes only hinder that process.

The Vignelli map does live on in digital form, though.  It was recently used as the basis for the online weekend subway service map called The Weekender, which is also available as an app for iOS and Android.  It is faithful to Vignelli’s spirit, but somehow the color scheme is even less obvious than before (white is land, grey is water).  But perhaps in the age of apps, it does not matter anymore how the surrounding geography appears, as long as riders are efficiently directed from one station to the next.

Source: Washington Post.