The New York City Subway map, it seems, is always controversial. At a talk two weeks ago 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 the museum 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). Part One of his piece ran on Friday, and Part Two follows. Hopefully, his explanations will help illuminate the thinking behind the current subway map.
Afflicted with a confirmed case of chronic Europhilia and after seeing Milan’s subway graphics, MTA Chairman Dr. William Ronan was duly impressed with the Vignelli/Noorda team. Surely, this was the impetus for their being hired.
Massimo’s 1972 map, still the all-time Number One in classiness and esthetics — and its recent 2008 update — embody the same problems which prompted MTA to go for a new look back in 1975 (in our 1979-2010 map and updates). Unfortunately, Massimo was a victim of the zeitgeist that hovered over New York City in the early 70s. Crime, graffiti and filth were a great disincentive for traveling around the city by subway, and when riders did venture forth, they wanted to be as close as possible to their above-ground destination, since everyone has an above-ground destination.
Vignelli’s map so distorted the positioning and spacing between stations, streets and landmarks that the uninitiated rider could not trust it to assure that he was where he wanted to be. Everyone instinctively knows that no city could ever be constructed with a 45-, 90-, and 135 degree-only street grid, and this created a mistrust and public objection. Also, because Vignelli had to deal with an already existing color coding used in the Unimark signage program a few years before, he had no choice but to use 17 different colored lines running down the avenues of spindly little Manhattan Island. This instantly forced the geography into an unreality with which visitors and inexperienced riders apparently felt uncomfortable.
Another impediment to working out a really viable system was the lack of state and federal funding for transit related programs, which eliminated the possibility of implementing another part of Massimo’s plan: the development of station-mounted local Neighborhood Maps to orient the rider to his actual street destination. We were much luckier in the eighties when with adequate funding and an MTA administration that favored good passenger relations, we were able to develop 83 large maps of New York City neighborhoods, replete with points of interest, landmarks, parks and more.
Of course this still would not have aided Massimo’s map in the planning of a trip from home or other non-subway venues. I used his map for seven years with no problem and had a little pleasure every time I opened it and studied it until it was so tattered that I had to pick up a fresh one. I had another advantage by seeing the map really close-up due to the fact that I worked on updating this map in one of its latter iterations. The absence of actual mechanicals to effect the revisions gave me the opportunity to work on the actual films and get an understanding about its construction.
I think the Unimark Signage System was exemplary, white-on-black or black-on-white, with Standard or Helvetica. None of this mattered too much because they had developed a true, unified system, not present in earlier subway signage. I appreciated it all the more when I was contracted to create a new sign manual, using the new ‘trunk-line’ color coding. Noorda and Vignelli’s previous work gave me a great starting point.
We had another advantage in that some of us were thinking ahead to possible issues regarding signage color problems when budgets were in place to do a new signage program and we discovered one significant one: Pantone ink colors v. colored glass ‘beads’ melted onto porcelain enamel panels. The red violet we chose for the 7 line could not be matched satisfactorily to the colors available in porcelain. We opted for Pantone Purple, a better choice for this situation with a close equivalent in porcelain.
Another advantage was the availability of funds for this massive system-wide signage changeover as well as MTA’s initiation of the series of 83 wall-mounted Neighborhood Maps encompassing every station, still there and updated periodically. This is one of Massimo’s regrets about the implementation of his own program.
Still another advantage comes to mind: We were retained to draft the full-sized shop drawings of station signage for all stations being renovated by the TA in-house. We also supervised the shop drawings of station signage done by architects retained by outside engineering firms that had station renovation contracts. Were we luckier than Massimo in having our signs placed correctly? Yeah, right! The installation crews seemed to hunt down the worst places for signs per some corollary to Murphy’s Law.
An example is the entry and exit signs over the turnstiles in one of the 7 line stations, where within a week after being carefully placed and installed, another crew came in and covered them up with Off-Hour Waiting Area signs, being installed by a different crew under another contract.
But back to Vignelli: Together with his wife and partner, Lella, the Vignellis have secured their rightful place in the Pantheon of greatness in American Design. His map will surely live on as the best example of this mapping methodology, surpassing Beck and London and all the other cities around the world where Beck’s offspring have emerged. Perhaps with circumstances going a little differently, Massimo’s map might still be improving the look of our subway system today.
Next: The 1974-1979 MTA maps
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.