Massimo Vignelli’s Map for New York subway system

Massimo Vignelli’s Map for New York subway system, 1972
A study of Vignelli’s subway map demonstrates how the design for efficiencywas not appreciated by the commuters in New York during the 70s
Lam Hui Cheng Gladys
Supervisor: Lim Guo Wen
Presented to the Faculty of Design
School of Design Communication
In partial fulfilment of the requirement for the
Cultural and Contextual Studies 1B
3 October 2018
1700 Words
Vignelli’s subway map was designed in 1972 in New York City (refer to appendix A). It originated from the design of the many New York subway designs by Massimo Vignelli. This map was intended to be vivid and to help passengers easily plan a trip throughout the city. Initially, there were three separate New York City subway system; BMT, IND and IRT.
These systems were fully merged into one connected plan in 1967 followed by a design of a sleek by Massimo Vignelli. In 1972, the updated version was instantly hit by designers, architects and people in the arts. It became very controversial as many people had trouble in understanding how to read it. Vignelli had traded geographical precision for beauty in order to untangle the knot of intersecting train lines to make a clean diagram.Due to these controversies the Vignelli’s map was returned to its cluttered state within seven years of its premiere yet gradually over time it earned iconic status in MoMA and design history. This research paper will evaluate and determine the efficiency of Vignelli’s subway map through its appreciation by the commuters in the 70s.

The Origin of Vignelli’s Subway Map
Until the mid-1960s, navigating around the New York City subway system was almost chaotic. It was a struggle of unbalanced commercial signs and untangled communication patterns without discerned logic (refer to appendix B). It was evident that the subway needed a design overhaul, one with effective and efficient navigational procedures. In 1966 the Transit Authority hired Unimark, a design consultancy established by Massimo Vignelli and his colleague Bob Noorda, aiming to consolidate and modernize the subway posters and route identification system. Vignelli and Noorda were expected to understand what many passengers often looked for, where to find it and eventually provide it, in the most minimal way possible. They were focused on how things were experienced and how they would look and used their gathered data from their working experience and their intensive research to create the Graphic Standards Manual (refer to appendix C), a new graphic standards which included limited typefaces for the entire system. This only left out a map for effective navigation.Fronted by Vignelli, the iconic piece was produced- an official map showing the New York City subway system. Vignelli made the use of subways more unlined a process he referred to as going from dot to dot. This dot to dot layout was essential in fixing the simple problem of people wanting to know where they were, and which stop to go on the map. He also omitted above ground details and instead used a colourful system, which showed uniformly separated stations. However, this iconic piece soon received different views.

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Commuters Had Problems Reading The Map
A series of problems were encountered from the design of this map both from other designers and from the users themselves. The map prioritised beauty over accuracy, and many commuters had trouble reading the map. The user’s complaints were: many stations existed in the wrong places as opposed to what was on the land, the water bodies within the city on the map was not blue but beige, the central arena seemed more square than the elongated rectangular and seemed much larger than the representation on the map indicated and was delineated in a drab shade of grey. It was adored by the designers but criticized by the commuters who expected a correct geographically map instead of a modernised schematic layout.Vignelli had used is design skills to portray a clean version of reality in his map. However, these were the factors that outraged the commuters as they argued that it was a misrepresentation of their city. Kevin Lynch explains how everyone perceives their surroundings differently through “connections” and “elements”. These ideas culminated these ideas from his project, The Image of the City. The commuters had trouble matching Vignelli’s map with their own mental visual map of the city.MTA’s Budget Issues and New York ModernismIn the 70s, it was a tough decade in New York. There was a massive crisis that snow balled from the 50s and 60s which included a rising number of unemployment to huge cuts in civil service. It was post-war, and New York spent large efforts to restructure which included the use of modernist design paradigms. One example is the 1972 ‘Big Apple’ campaign, where it was aimed to recreate a new image for New York, one that is vibrant and liveable. Vignelli’s map is closely related to the conflict, as MTA suffered huge amounts of budget cuts and failed to upkeep maintenance. Between 1976 to 1977, continuing an eight-year decline, the number of passengers dropped by 327 million. This financial crisis caused the rushing of the map design into implementation without passing through the usual rounds of consumer research, and due to budget cuts, the MTA introduced only one out of the four maps designed by Vignelli. These four maps were created with the intentions to work hand in hand and to provide users all the information they needed to navigate the subway collectively.

Other Maps That Showed Similarities and Differences as Vignelli’s
Vignelli’s version was soon replaced by John Tauranac’s committee in 1979 is considered better as it was geographically accurate (refer to Appendix D). Tauranac’s map shows a few names of the streets which are not efficient to function as a good street map. Viginelli’s map showed more street names than Tauranac’s. The Tauranac map shows joint trains running along the same trunk to one single line and categorizes the trains that stop at particular station below the station name which no hand brought clarity in places like Manhattan which would otherwise be full of crisscrossing lines yet on the other hand, it makes it harder to understand the lines that run express and those which are local.
New York City subway has a special feature of lines which run local, then express and local again that no map can show it properly and is specifically confusing the tourists. The map designed by Vignelli works effectively than the official map by showing every train as a separate line, yet it is still hard to get a general comprehension of the express sections since every line is drawn with similar weight.
Conclusion: A Masterpiece and Disaster
The Vignelli’s map is today, universally praised by the majority of design critics all around the globe and is declared a masterpiece. The commuters, however, immediately criticised it, and even going to the extent of calling it a ‘disaster’. It was soon replaced by Tauranac’s map which is considered a more geographical accurate and realistic version. And despite Vignelli’s design innovations and modern beauty, his map was not nearly as successful with the commuters as Harry Beck’s version. However, even though his subway map is a design classic today, its design was not appreciated in the 70s by the commuters of the New York subway.

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Appendix AAntonelli, Paola. “MoMA | The Subway and the City: Massimo Vignelli, 1931–2014.” Lee Bontecou. Untitled. 1959 | MoMA, Massimo Vignelli. New York Subway Diagram. c. 1970. Lithograph, 59 x 46 3/4? (149.9 x 118.7 cm). Publisher: New York City Transit Authority, New York, NY. Gift of the designer. © 2014 Massimo Vignelli

Appendix BGiovannini, Joseph, and Andrew Garn. Subway Style: 100 Years of Architecture and Design in the New York Subway. From Print September/October 1965; and signs at 59th Street/Lexington (c.1965) Stewart Tabori & Chang, 2004.

Appendix CAntonelli, Paola. “MoMA | The Subway and the City: Massimo Vignelli, 1931–2014.” Lee Bontecou. Untitled. 1959 | MoMA, Massimo Vignelli, Bob Noorda, Unimark International Corporation. New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual. 1966–70. Lithograph with screenprinted binder, 13 5/8 x 15 1/2 x 2 7/8? (34.6 x 39.4 x 7.3 cm). Gift of Massimo Vignelli

Appendix C”Transitmaps.” Transit Maps, 21 May 2015, Submission – Historical Map: 1979 New York Subway Map


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