The current subway map iteration of Manhattan is shown here on top of the new version.
With the MTA set to introduce a new version of its subway map over the next few weeks, New Yorkers who follow these sorts of changes have been debating the purpose of a subway map. On Friday, I noted how the MTA has struggled to balance the design of the subway map with its geographical purpose. During the Vignelli years, geography took a backseat to design while in the post-1979 world, geography has been the driving force behind The Map.
In today’s Times, Design columnist Steve Heller explores the evolution of the subway map and the MTA’s attempts at getting this iconic image just right. I’ll excerpt the good parts:
Although Mr. Vignelli’s stylized, diagrammatic map earned its place in the pantheon of postwar design — the collection of the Museum of Modern Art — it has fostered considerable debate about its heretical abstractions and is cited by design historians as one of Modernism’s most fabulous failures. While failing to cater to the public’s needs, its colored linear motif nonetheless clearly and rationally conveyed the fundamental distinction of which subway line is which. By simplifying the geographical details, the map may have looked less like a conventional map and more like an electrical schematic, but it forced the eye to see only the essentials. Maybe it was ahead of its time. Or maybe it was right on time — but the public failed to recognize it.
Its replacement in 1979, a more traditional topographical version, reintroduced all the basic map conventions (including blue water) and, most important, the New York City street grid. Yet the circulatory look of the map not only lacked the aesthetic flair of the Vignelli classic, it also junked up the graphical way-finding composition by reintroducing thinner and more serpentine route lines and a mass of smaller landmark details. Making Manhattan and the boroughs more representational probably helped users recognize their locales and destinations, but it also injected a labored look to the entire document.
The revision in 1998 added even more information, including free transfer points and alternate bus service, but once again reduced the size of the colored lines and route numbers. Users adapt to almost anything over time, and adjusting to the more cluttered composition was no exception. But that should not be the determinant of good design. While the Vignelli map may not have been the most versatile or adjustable given changes in the subway system, the ’79 and ’98 maps did not solve any of the aesthetic woes.
The new map, says Heller, “does indeed reduce the level of visual noise to a more tolerable level.” It is not, however, “as great a design achievement as it might be. Less isn’t always more, but as long as the Transit Authority is married to including all the details, it will take more than plumping up Manhattan to make a beautiful and functional map.”
The problem remains the battle over function. Should a subway map attempt to show accurate geographical representations of subway lines as New York’s attempts to do or should it show schematic route maps that give passengers a sense of direction slightly removed from geography as London’s and Paris’ does? Until the MTA and its map designers have a better answer for that question, the map will remain a bit cluttered, and it will feel perhaps comfortable in the clutter even if its geographical reliability isn’t 100 percent.