The New York City Subway map, it seems, is always controversial. At a December talk 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). I ran Parts One, Two and Three in December, and we pick up the tale from there. Hopefully, his explanations will help illuminate the thinking behind the current subway map.
As work continued on the new map, there were a few more experiments in routing display, unseen by the public, (thank God), including a two-color and a three-color routing system. I have recently seen slides of these thanks to Peter Lloyd, but cannot remember the rationale for it, other than to offer some kind of visual separation of all the spaghetti strands. Unfortunately, people have some kind of unconscious mechanism that tries to connect different line colors with some kind of difference in meaning. Whatever we accomplished or improved was without the benefit of a real color coding system. The public outcry for color-coding the routes in some fashion continued.
It was around mid 1978 that the committee’s recommendation for a trunk line color system – a recommendation that previously had gone unheeded – was finally taken seriously. Chairman John Tauranac, with his usual energy for the project, presented the committee’s proposal to MTA Chairman Harold Fisher, and this time Fischer approved the idea. Apparently, the funding issue which was the reason we had not gone forward with this scheme until then, ceased to be an impediment. The trunk lines were the cornerstone of a new map, with an excellent rationale for dividing up the route colors into logical group, that would indeed enable us to succeed in creating a map that more people were able to use.
Strangely enough, even with all the bright people, with all the expertise you can put in one room, (the committee) It took a complete outsider, a clerk In the TA’s Electrical Department, with no connection to mapping at all, to come up with this clever notion, and put it into the suggestion box. Actually, the final product that we developed, had never been publicly tested but embodied, in a logical, orderly fashion, exactly what the riders were asking for.
Chairman Fisher knew about this tail-wagging-the-dog situation, and the new map lead the way for the whole system’s station and car signage to be turned on its head. Fisher deserves a lot of credit for his vision of a new beginning of successful navigation of New York’s subways. The MTA realized that it would take a staggering amount of money to redo all the station signage. At that time, just the fabrication of porcelain enamel signs cost about $85/sq ft (roughly estimated at that time to run close to $30 million) and I never heard any actual guesses on cost for the approximately 8,000 subway cars. The cost for design and printing of the map was almost inconsequential when compared to all the other numbers.
In contrast to Massimo’s use of eight matched Pantone colors to delineate 25 different subway lines, we elected to go for 11 matched colors for 11 lines, condensing the lines running down 8th, 7th, 6th (Ave of Americas at the time), Broadway, and Lexington, respectively, as a trunkline for each avenue of operation. You can see why Vignelli ran into problems with criss-crossing of identical colors on lines with no family relation to each other. For example, the N on Canal intersecting with the 6 on Lex, both PMS 130 (yellow-orange) is a typical ‘conflict’ spot, as is the 4 and the F at Houston, both PMS 239 (magenta).
Massimo was forced to compromise the purity of his color palette by tinting (lightening) one of the conflicting colors in each case so as to minimize the color collision. This happens all over the map. This situation also gave me the big heads-up about considering signage and mapping as part of a continuum, not to be conceived as separate entities at separate times, but both as part-and-parcel of a master program.
The ‘tinting’ that I speak of, not only departs from the actual color specs, but was not even that reliable when printed on uncoated stock, creating less of a tone shift than will work as a difference maker. Also PMS 185 (red) does not always print with enough difference from PMS 239 (magenta) when viewed with the different light sources that must be encountered.
Concerned about our proposed yellow-orange for the ‘N’, ‘QB’, ‘R’ lines with small white ‘drop-out’ letters, I sent our tentative color palette to an ophthalmologist, specializing in color issues, who was recommended to me by the American Foundation for the Blind in Manhattan. He cautioned me about the tiny white letters, and furthermore, was dubious of the color itself when viewed in the subway cars under fluorescent lighting.
This evaluation provided the impetus for A) deepening the color, originally PMS 116, to PMS 130, and, B) changing the route designation letter to black, for this one trunk line, to the chagrin of at least one prominent designer of the 1970s. More about him next time, but if you’ve ever driven to La Guardia Airport looking for the Delta terminal (yellow-orange with a white ‘D’ and nearly invisible in the morning sun) you’ll have to acknowledge the correctness of this design decision.
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.