Debating subway map form and function


Massimo Vignelli's diagrammatic map still inspires discussion nearly forty years after its debut.

After listening to the current iteration of the New York City subway map called everything from bilious to muddy to messy to a mongrel, I almost felt bad for the thing. Almost. It’s been insulted, beaten, torn apart and called everything under the sun, but it still looks ugly.

Last night, the Museum of the City of New York hosted an All Star panel of subway map men. Massimo Vignelli, John Tauaranc, Eddie Jabbour of KickMap fame and historian Paul Shaw took turns exploring the evolution of the form and functionality of the New York City subway map. The MTA’s map folks were invited but apparently declined the invitation. While the various designers disagreed on the proper appearance for a map, the one thing that united the evening was an obvious disgust with the current iteration. “Clarity is the key,” Tauranac, one of the designers of the 1979 subway map, said. “The MTA simply does not do that.”

The design shortcomings of the current map are evident in Lower Manhattan where station names overlap subway route lines and information isn't easy to comprehend.

The venerable Vingelli took the floor first. While the angular subway schematic that divided the city’s subway riders remains Vingelli’s most iconic New York piece, the subways are replete with the 79-year-old Italian designer’s imprint. The relatively clear signage and the unified use of Helvetica was a part of Vingelli’s Graphics Standard manual that the TA adopted in the late 1960s.

To introduce his idea for a subway map, Vingelli spoke about merging form and function. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and in fact, a good designer will figure out a way to incorporate both. A map, he said, is a geographical representation of an area designed to get around at street level. A subway map should be a diagram used to show how routes interact with each other. “When you try to mix the two things, you’re just making a mongrel,” he said of the current subway map.

Vingelli, who understands the impact his map had on form and function in the public realm, didn’t set out to design something for MoMA. “Designing a diagram is not just a piece of art,” he said. “It’s really a logical thing.”

His original plans included three different schematics for subway stations. His diagramatic map would hang next to a geographic map of New York City and a neighborhood map. “From the beginning, we knew one map could not do the job,” he said.

Today, MTA stations feature neighborhood maps — decades after they were first proposed — but the authority decided to merge the geographic map of the city with the subway map. Vingelli did not approve. Showing high-res images of the subway, he detailed the typographic problems with the map and its cartographic shortcomings. The current map, he noted, features call-out balloons and haphazard text. “It covers the information it’s supposed to provide,” he said.

Ultimately, Vingelli, who seems not bitter but upset that the MTA discarded his map, blamed the authority for meddling with the map to the point of incomprehension. “You don’t need a good designer,” he said. “You need a good client.”

The 1979 iteration begat complexity on a map.

Following Vignelli, Tauranac took the mic. He was a member of the MTA’s map committee in the late 1970s and helped lead the effort to replace the Vignelli map with something more “quasi-geographic.” But he said, “over the years, it has become more quasi and less geographic.”

Unlike Vignelli’s map, Tauranac’s representation of the subway map attempts to provide geographic context. The key change between Tauranac’s and Vingelli’s map involved a consolidation. While Vingelli used different lines for each subway route, Tauranac’s committee with help from the design team led by Michael Hertz used trunk lines instead to remove clutter. But the MTA has added more and more extraneous info, and it’s too hard to see the important stuff.

Today, Tauranac offers up his own map for sale. It’s a semi-schematic, semi-geographic meld that features type face that doesn’t run at angles or cover subway lines and shows the difference between night, day and weekend service. It is a far cry from the current iteration of the official map, and Tauaranc’s disgust with The Map showed. “Land got a color I can only describe as bilious, and Just ask any 5th grader what color a park is.” he said of the latest MTA map refresh. “The MTA map has deteriorated. It’s messy in form and less valuable in function.”

For Tauranac and for Kickmap’s Eddie Jabbour, the current MTA version isn’t informative enough in the right ways. Tauaranc spoke at length about the service guide, once a key feature of the Vingelli map and now relegated to the Internet. Without it, the map is only half useful. “When does the Q go to Astoria?” he asked. “Rush hour? Weekdays? Weeknights only? Weekends only? And when does it stop at 49th Street?” With the current map, you just can’t tell.

Eddie Jabbour's KickMap simplifies the tangle of subway crossings in Brooklyn. (Click to enlarge)

The KickMap, which first came to my attention back in 2007 and is now available in app form for iPhones, tries to solve those problems. Jabbour’s map borrows elements of Vingelli’s map and tries to produce an easy-to-follow schematic with geographical underpinnings. The mobile version will automatically show nighttime service after 11 p.m., and it is, says its creator, more user-friendly. “There’s a cynicism in that map,” Jabbour said of our subway map. “It’s almost as though someone said, ‘That’s where Atlantic/Pacific is going to go. Tough. Figure it out.’”

As the speakers wrapped up their presentations, the lesson from the evening was one of visual simplicity and information presentation. The Map with its intermodal balloon boxes despised by all has tried to do too much with too little, and the MTA seems content to let the quasiness win out over visual simplicity or a form that serves a function. “Our map is a mongrel,” Jabbour said. “It’s an actually barrier to understand the system.”

Categories : Subway Maps

47 Responses to “Debating subway map form and function”

  1. Lex A says:

    “The mobile version will automatically show nighttime service after 11 a.m., and it is, says its creator, more user-friendly.” AM? or PM?

    • John Paul N. says:

      I think Jabbour meant the addition of a nighttime map was the user-friendly part, as nighttime services dramatically differ from daytime services.

  2. Jason says:

    I recently came into posession of two Vignelli maps while helping clean out my grandparents old house in queens. They are from some time in the 70′s (one is in great shape, the other one is a bit worn). Anyone know the value of these to a collector?

  3. John says:

    The tangle of lines in Lower Manhttan and Downtown Brooklyn is going to thwart anyone trying to created a readable map that adheres to the geographic layout. Jabbour’s map still struggles to give subway newbies a good idea of where everything is around The Battery (gosh, that transfer between the R and the 1 at Whitehall/South Ferry is a really, really long walk) but overall, it’s an improvement on the clarity of the Vignelli design, and the return to individual lines for each route does make it easier to designate which trains stop where and when than the current MTA map.

    • Marc Shepherd says:

      Jabbour’s map is the best I’ve seen. It disproves Vignelli’s claim that the subway topography and the above-ground geography cannot both be portrayed on the same document.

      Vignelli’s map might make a great art museum display, but for its intended purpose it was terrible. It ought to be obvious that people who enter the subway are generally going somewhere above ground. A map that gratuitously subverts the real-life geography, as his did, is a disservice to customers. All maps, obviously, must omit some details; Vignelli’s actually lied about them for artistic, rather than practical, reasons.

      Apparently his idea was that the customer would need to look at two maps side by side — one of the subway, another of the geography — and superimpose them in the mind. I am not surprised the MTA abandoned that misguided approach.

      • Apparently his idea was that the customer would need to look at two maps side by side — one of the subway, another of the geography — and superimpose them in the mind. I am not surprised the MTA abandoned that misguided approach.

        He made it another point: Having a diagrammatic map of the subway works in, literally, every other major city in the world except New York. The only reason it doesn’t work here is because the MTA is too stubborn about it.

        • Marc Shepherd says:

          I think customers have something to do with it, too. The public never really warmed up to Vignelli’s map, because the pre-Vignelli maps were more faithful to the geography than his was. When the MTA abandoned the Vignelli map, it’s not as if there were riots and tears. It was never much loved, except among art critics.

          The non-geographic London tube map dates from 1931. I don’t know what people thought of it then, but no one who rides the tube today remembers any other map.

          • ant6n says:

            Never really understood while users care about the geography it’s too inaccurate in any case. It’s not like anybody could walk through the city using the MTA map. What exact angles the subway goes up is not particularly relevant, but having clear knowledge what line stops where is.

            It seems that most New Yorkers have internalized both the intricacies of the service, as well as the geographical layout of the city — so I wonder why they use a map at all (the MTA map fails at both).

            Is somebody who visits New York a lot and doesn’t know the layout of all the streets (especially in Bronx, Brooklyn), I’d much rather have a more accessible map one one hand, but neighborhood maps at every exit in the whole system. That’s where the New York system fails to provide the information – you go to a stop, and there’s no street map, and the MTA map doesn’t help either.

            In the rest of the world, people get along with the schematic map because there are also geographic maps — so you use the schematic maps to plan your subway route, and then you use the geographic or neighborhood maps to tell you where exactly to go — with the added benefit that you quickly understand the layout of a given station; which in New York you mostly learn through experience.

        • Christopher says:

          San Francisco, which is arguably a major city, and BART uses a map laid over the geographically accurate (much more so than NY) map of the region. It includes landmarks as well. Now admittedly they have fewer train routes. (And entirely separate maps for street buses, trains and trolleys. With a separate owl service map.)

          Also while Metro in DC has a very diagrammatic map. Every station and bus stop has a wonderful full map geographic map of the city and it’s bus routes.

        • Alon Levy says:

          The Paris Metro stations display geographic maps in addition to the standard mildly diagrammatic map.

          • Edward says:

            Paris and San Fran are geographically smaller than NYC. Also, NYC is spread out over 5 boros, 4 of them on islands separated by numerous bodies of water. SF and Paris also do not have three separate systems intergrated into one, so there are not tons of stations one or two blocks from each other, with half a dozen lines merging into one station like Times Square or Atlantic Ave. Makes it much easier to produce schematic/geographic maps.

            • Alon Levy says:

              Paris is two separate systems integrated into one. Four, if you add in the RATP- and SNCF-operated parts of the RER.

              There actually are stations with many lines merging together – for example, Chatelet-Les Halles, which has 5 subway lines and three RER lines.

            • ant6n says:

              What about Berlin – the rapid transit map is schematic despite the system being 300 miles in total, with 300 stations and 25 lines – and the map even shows some of the regional rail system (everything where you can use subway tickets). And the station distances are drawn the same, whether it’s a <1km downtown subway line, or one of the stops outside the city proper where the distance is several km.
              On top of the above linked schematic map (which can be found in every train), there's also a large geographic map, which can be found in every station and at most bus stops (this map incidentally shows all bus stops of the city as well). Plus there are neighborhood maps at every station.

    • Jabbour’s map still struggles to give subway newbies a good idea of where everything is around The Battery.

      Unless you’re willing to carry around a 4-foot-wide map, you can’t smush all of the subway routes into a geographically accurate map of Lower Manhattan. The points Jabbour and others made was that the diagram there works better than a map, and people who need another map ot get around aboveground will either have one or use the neighborhood map at the station.

      • John says:

        I agree there’s nothing you can do about the tangle south of Canal in Manhattan or north of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, but there’s a reason why the current maps show the Montague and Joralemon Street tunnels traveling in almost a northeasterly direction, in order to best represent their proximity to South Ferry and then get them back into alignment with the other lines as they enter Brooklyn.

        That’s the only real criticism I have with Jabbour’s layout – like Vignelli’s 1972 rendering, the layout in the Battery area allows form to win out over function. It might look uglier, and would be inaccurate as far as the underground layout goes, to either angle those routes slightly upward as they cross the East River, or even cross the R and the 4/5 routes on the map and cross them back again to better show the relationship between Whitehall, South Ferry and Bowling Green, but for the people most likely to be using the map, they don’t want to have to carry around two different versions of the area or toggle back and forth between the two on their iPhone or iPad.

        I haven’t found anything wrong with the map other than that area, but if the MTA were to adopt it as their own, it is something that would need modification, or you’re back to the same situation that made the ’72 map problematic.

  4. Andy Battaglia says:

    I think the current MTA map is a nice compromise between the very geographic and the very schematic maps of the past. The reason schematic maps work if every other major city is because no other city has to deal with the length vs. width issue that Manhattan does. The non-central location of the island compared to the rest of the city doesn’t help either. KickMap is a nice attempt but it still doesn’t work for me because transfer stations like Times Square or Atlantic-Pacific become enormous blobs and stretch to seven times the size of the neighborhoods they’re in. However, I think the MTA could learn a thing or two from the other designers and finally make a nighttime map. I also agree that some of the more important service guide information and quirks(like the Q sometimes skipping 49th and terminating at 57th) should come back to the map.

  5. Alargule says:

    Interesting discussion. If anyone is interested in the considerations I took to design my own map – and can read/understand Dutch – I’ve recently started my own blog, beginning with a series discussing the various official and non-official maps that were designed over time for the New York subway system.

  6. TAJ says:

    Neither the article nor the comments mention the map’s necessary function of aiding in locating a station from street level. Perhaps this was too obvious a feature to mention? The Vignelli is an utter failure in this aspect. That said, attempting to represent the actual distance between stations is a boondoggle at best.

    As a 20+ year resident of Manhattan (transplanted from the midwest), I have never had a problem deciphering the map (unless I was drunk). Only lazy, incompetent or impatient users will fail to decipher it, nor soon learn which train will tend to run as a “local” after 11pm.

    The map will always be a mongrel, as is the city. So long the MTA lets the trains run off the leash, savvy citizens will have to rely on experience and memory, not a map or an app.

    • Alargule says:

      Locating stations from street level is what street maps are for.

    • As Alargule says, no map designer believes a subway map is supposed to aid in locating a station from street level. That’s what neighborhood and street maps are for. If you’re going to judge the MTA’s map on that grounds, it fails miserably. Trying to find station entrances or sometimes even just the stations themselves based upon the current iteration of The Map is a lesson in futility.

      • Christopher says:

        Also, there’s a reason the station names themselves are a good indication of the location. For years, that was the map. (Could be better if they listed cross streets. A problem that has been pointed out as people have stopped referring to things as say the Lexington Ave line, or the 6th Ave line, or what have you.)

  7. BrooklynBus says:

    I think that the easiest to read map I’ve seen is Joe Brennan’s map if it were adapted just for use on the subways and showed route letters and numbers. I like the idea of one line for the express and another for the local.

    • I like Brennan’s work but it’d be heck to fit in a pocket. Maybe a scrollable App, though.


      • BrooklynBus says:

        He’d have to get rid of the rails outside the city limits and add route designations. I just like the style of it a little better than the Kick Map. Not having the station names all horizontal just makes the map look too cluttered.

        When they eliminated the excess information from the current map, they had the chance to do that. But instead they chose to use a larger font and increased the the number of station names at angles. It also makes the map more difficult to read because you have to tilt your head to read them.

  8. Tsuyoshi says:

    One problem New York has is that the subway system here is significantly more complicated than anywhere else. Other cities don’t have multiple routes on one track, express routes that skip stations, or routes that switch between express to local, or disappear entirely at certain times. It’s all compounded by the fact that the system is 24 hours, with no down time for regular maintenence.

    And you need the map to show proximity between stations, because the system is an agglomeration of three different, formerly competing services, with many stations only a block or two apart from each other.

    Under these constraints, it’s impossible to make a map that’s perfectly comprehensible to tourists. The purpose it really serves is as an aid to someone who already knows the system, and needs to refresh their memory. I think the current map works pretty well for that purpose.

  9. Edward says:

    Have lived in NYC my whole life, began riding subway when Vignelli maps were in use, and have used every map since. Have not gotten lost once, nor had problems figuring out how to get to a certain location using MTA maps. It’s just graphically impossible to show local, express, late night, weekend and temporary service due to construction. If tourists can’t figure it out, tough tewillikers. Let them get lost and figure how to get back to Times Square by doing what we all did when we first started riding the trains: ask a native NYer!

  10. IanM says:

    Can’t say I agree with Vignelli at all re: diagrammatic maps. So the idea is that anyone not intimately familiar with their route should make sure to carry their own street map that they can then try to match up with the subway map? That seems singularly unhelpful. What’s wrong with combining the subway map with one that gives the rider some small clue of where the heck they are once they climb up the stairs?

    I like the more recent MTA maps, and have never had trouble reading them. Sure, I guess a map like London’s is simpler and nicer-looking, but, as I’ve found when I’ve been there, it’s less helpful in actually getting you to your final destination. Function should rank over form, in this case.

    Of course there are limits to how much you should clutter up the map with information, and there are some weird geographical choices in the current version (why are the subway-less Red Hook and Cobble Hill so huge?), but overall the MTA map strikes a decent balance. I hope they don’t switch back to a map that leaves the rider clueless as to the actual features of the world they’re trying to navigate.

  11. Alon Levy says:

    I got lost once, because the current map isn’t geographic enough: namely, the layout didn’t make it clear that the Lex goes under Park south of 42nd.

    • Steve says:

      What is the “Lex” route that you’re talking about? The map only indicates routes 4,5 & 6 and, south of 42nd, the current map shows it running on Park Ave S, then on Lafayette, then on Broadway.

      And yes, I like the current ugly map. While not the best, map’s like Vignelli’s are horrible.

      • Edward says:

        New to NYC Steve? Anybody who’s lived here more than six months knows “The Lex” is the Lexington Ave Line (4/5/6 trains).

      • Alon Levy says:

        The official name of the 4/5/6 is the Lexington Line, which led me to believe that the line actually runs under Lex. The subway map indicates that it follows Park south of 42nd, but in lilliputian font.

        • Edward says:

          Well, for the most part, it does run under Lexington Ave, from 42-125 Sts. It would be a bit unwieldy to call it the “Lexington Ave/Park Ave South/Broadway/Jerome Ave/Eastern Parkway Line.”

        • Adirondacker12800 says:

          What street does the 7th Ave line run under in your neck of the woods? How about the 8th Ave? The Broadway lines run under ???? north of 42nd… How about the 8th Ave line at Houston? ….

          • Alon Levy says:

            They call it “Broadway-7th Avenue,” so it’s fine.

            I’m not saying they should rename all the lines. I’m saying they should make the street changes clear on a map, as the 8th Avenue Line’s shift south of 14th is. KickMap actually does this better than the current map.

          • Edward says:

            Adirondacker, you don’t have to get all breathless over this. One question mark per sentence is fine. (??????). As anyone who’s lived in NYC for more than 5 mins can tell you, the lines are named for the major street/avenue in Manhattan that they run under, hence “8th Ave” Line, “Broadway Line” etc. Most tourists or business folks in lower Manhattan don’t much care if the 8th Ave Line runs under St Nich or the 6th Ave line goes up the Concourse.

  12. Ted says:

    This is great! Tell me, when are they going to have a panel about ridding the subway of the pungent odor of human urine?

  13. Noah says:

    I honestly have never liked the Kick map since I first saw it in ’07, for the exact reason that some people seem to like it and which is one of its major design principles, that is its lack of trunk lines. Trunk lines are great in my humble opinion, they give tons of information about the a line without too much attention and they simplify map layout. To my it just seems too cluttered and lacks and creates huge geographic distortion, because more room is needed in transit dense areas. Certainly the current MTA map has much room for improvement and certainly has something to learn from other maps, such as the kick map and how it shows neighborhoods. So are two or even maybe three maps better than one? I actually don’t think so, at least from a usability standpoint, imagine having to correlate location from each map to another, so though more information might be able to be displayed in a more accurate manner, putting together the information from multiple disparate maps is challenging. I think one map, supplemented with better way finding at subway stations is the only possible solution and I definitely want them to bring back the service guide.

    Until every subway car, bus and station has a Google Maps terminal these arguments will continue, but there isn’t anything wrong sometimes with a beautiful artistic map that encourages wandering, if that is its goal. I personally value in my subway map a fare amount of geographic accuracy, this actually aids in correlation with other maps.

  14. Rob Durchola says:

    Many years ago, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum had a special exhibition on maps. One of the points the exhibit was trying to make is that every map (with or without specific intent) has a point of view. No map can truly be complete or meet the need of every potential user.

    I once worked for a transit agency (not in NY) and the competing opinions and “demands” both from within the agency and from outside the agency concerning what to include/exclude on maps and timetables was a real education. There is no simple or best solution, especially in a system as complex as New York’s.

  15. John Paul N. says:

    I wanted to comment sooner, but I was too busy this week. Better late than never, I guess. Some observations:

    *One of the panelists (Tauranac, I believe) demonstrated how he saw tourists who unfolded the map tended to want Manhattan more than other areas, and showed how his map and some others unfolded easily to show Manhattan while the MTA’s map must be unfolded all the way to get to Manhattan.

    *It was Jabbour’s son who wanted to do an iPhone app, and Jabbour hesitated to do so. (I’m debating whether I want to offer my services as an Android developer to him.)

    *The absence of an MTA representative was of note. At least 3 of the panelists had an axe to grind with the MTA, so I couldn’t say that wasn’t unexpected, but I would have wanted to hear their POV for counterpoint and for PR reasons. But the MTA was wise to sense some hostility if any representative(s) attended.

    Anyway, I took away from the discussion ideas to improve my mobile app, and regardless of looking for any entrepreneurial edge, I was satisfied with it.

  16. BuzzJ says:

    What i think would be cool (but it’s never gonna be biult)is a HUGE subway hub connecting many of the lines together.


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