The New York City Subway map, it seems, is always controversial. At a talk last week at the Museum of the City of New York, designers past and present offered up their critiques, and I’ve burned many a pixel discussing elements of the current map.
Absent from last week’s discussion though was Michael Hertz, the designer of the current subway map. Hertz, who says he never received an invite to the event and was not asked to speak, contacted me to offer up his defense of his subway map and his views on the controversial history of the map. What follows are his words and views (not mine). I’ll be running his posts as a series with Part One today, Part Two on Monday and subsequent pieces over the next few weeks. Hopefully, his explanations will help illuminate the thinking behind the current subway map.
The current MTA New York Subway Map is still being debated despite of its three-decade lifespan. It seems that it has taken on a life of its own with no credit to me. I learned recently of a sighting in a college dorm in Serbia.
I have been — and still am — the designer-of-record for the Subway Map since 1979 and have lived with and performed all the revisions — mostly additions — to this venerable document for the past 32 years. It has taken thousands of hits over the years for design issues, from the “Designiacs,” and for service display issues, from the ‘Foamers’ a disparaging description (not mine) of rail fanatics. So the blogs and the print media are always full of criticisms, many of them harsh. But this is a free country, at the moment, and their complaints and observations are always welcome. But what of the millions of visitors over the years, who do not continually document their feelings online, but simply use the map for guidance in getting around? They generally succeed, with none of the problems that all the ‘experts’ seem to find.
What I find strange is that after 26 years of having my large Neighborhood Maps (83 in all) posted in every station, I have yet not been made aware of ANY complaints. I’m sure that if designers ever counted the number of different families and fonts that I used (Optima, Helvetica and Century on the same map), my mug shot would posted on the entry wall of the Type Directors Club, with orders to stab me with the nearest available goose quill.
It also appears that there is no end to the number of ways that the map could be improved significantly by the bloggers, or replaced by designers banging on the MTA’s doors for a shot at the big city’s official logo on their work. It’s really amazing that New York’s tremendous system with its convoluted service patterns, such as full-time, part-time, rush-hour, night, weekend, running on different tracks at different times, along with its crowded, overlapping lines, and multiplicity of colors, is constantly being compared unfavorably to every system in the world — including a new one to me: Sweden’s Gothenburg Transit System — with the recommendation of employing graphics that seem to work well everywhere else in the world.
But which city is it, outside of NY, where the physical center of the city is not the transit hub? Which city is it that has three major hubs — lower Manhattan, Midtown, Downtown Brooklyn — and many other minor ones such as Broadway-Nassau-Fulton, Roosevelt Av-Jackson Heights, etc.?
Which city is it, outside of NY, that was comprised of three competing systems, all vying for the same little piece of real estate in the Wall St area and with different stations on different lines with different service, all within steps of each other? Nowhere. This city is unique. It should not be compared, ever, to London, Paris, Tokyo, or any other system.
When people get old, the number and type of unwelcome additions that appear on their bodies grows geometrically. The warts, moles and varicose veins on people are the service changes, the bus-connection flags, and the Staten Island inset that appear on the map. Every new MTA administration — and this is my tenth, working under successively, bidded awards — has its own vision of how the map should aid the rider in his navigation. As a designer I did not welcome the addition of all the bus ‘flags’ — recently removed from some versions — but I did the best I could with it because it came from a desire by the CLIENT to improve the map’s utility. I was surprised by how well it was received by a significant number of riders, although hated by many others. This is, by most standards, a very old map and is subject to ‘death by improvement’, unless carefully managed.
I capitalized ‘CLIENT’ because that’s who calls the shots. If Massimo Vignelli, John Tauranac or Eddie Jabbour were told that the bus connection ‘flags’ must be added to their design, would they refuse and simply walk away, or would they do their best, like I have done, to deal with this issue professionally, and without designers’ ego getting in the way?
The guys out there with their sometimes handsome designs, are creating maps, as of now, for themselves, not a real client. They approach the MTA, whom I have always found to be supportive of legitimate improvements, and show them their entries into the murky pool of wannabee maps.
When one of KickMap’s major contributions turned out to be a revisit of Massimo’s problematic seventeen-lines-through-Manhattan scenario, a methodology that has been proven over and over again to force more elements into the eyeballs of the rider, he touted it as an improvement. The MTA spent many millions in the eighties on station and car signage to inaugurate a simpler, trunkline color coding that reduced the number of lines. Why would he expect a warm welcome?
But more on this in upcoming segments.
Michael Hertz is the designer of many transit maps, illustrated airport directory maps and other wayfinding devices around the U.S. He designed the 1979 NY City Subway Map and has handled all of the revisions since. In 1976 he was awarded this design contract after creating five borough bus maps, and a Westchester bus map that were praised by the press and the public.