Debating subway map form and functionBy
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 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.”
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.
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.”