Ushering in the digital return of the Vignelli mapBy
When the MTA debuted its Weekender map last month, it did so with a flourish. The new offering, a digital interpretation of the weekend’s service changes aimed at bringing visual information to the straphanging masses, brought Massimo Vignelli’s controversial and iconic subway map back into circulation.
Vignelli’s map, currently a part of MoMA’s permanent collection, had a decade-long run as the MTA’s official subway map in the 1970s, but it was a run not without constant controversy. Relying on a multitude of colors and some abstract geographic shapes that vaguely represented the boroughs of New York, the map had numerous detractors who found it hard to use and hard to read. Parks weren’t green; rivers weren’t blue; and due to the lines and angles, some stations weren’t even in the right place.
By the mid-1970s, the MTA had a plan in place to phase out the Vignelli map, and in 1979, the map designed by Michael Hertz Associates made its debut. With some modifications, that’s the map we know and begrudgingly love today. Yet, Vignelli’s map has always been a popular one. It’s appeared on
sunglasses and dresses, and in 2008, Vignelli issued an update for Men’s Vogue.
Now, Vignelli’s offering is back in action with the MTA but just don’t call it a map. Rather, the Weekener is a diagram of subway service. Vignelli’s map, with its straight lines that each represent one subway route, is ideal for the digital age. As Vignelli told The Times a few wees ago, his map was “created in B.C. (before computer) for the A.C. (after computer) era.”
So just how did Massimo Vignelli and the MTA work out the new diagram? A post by Steven Heller on The Times’ T Magazine blog delves into the detente. Heller writes:
he new digital iteration is the result of the combined efforts of Vignelli and two of his associates, Beatriz Cifuentes and Yoshiki Waterhouse. One of their first acts was to rename the map. It is now a diagram, which actually makes sense as it is not a literal representation, but a semantic one. They also agreed to add supplementary neighborhood map options — online versions of the proprietary maps already used in M.T.A. stations.
For The Weekender, the team rebuilt the diagram geometry from scratch using a new primary grid for Midtown. This grid is essentially a square bound by 14th and 59th Streets, and Park and Eighth Avenues, with Broadway running diagonally from corner to corner. Intervals between major cross streets like 14th or 42nd were placed equidistantly along the grid, with more minor stops, like 18th and 28th, placed in between. And, Waterhouse adds, “We introduced a hollow dot to represent stops, which were sometimes passed, depending on schedule, known as a ‘sometimes-stop.’”
Waterhouse explains that all critiques of the 1972 map — which had been dutifully retained by the M.T.A. — were addressed. But Vignelli’s biggest bugaboo was showing the parks. He believed that including them — particularly Central Park — was the downfall of the 1972 map, so the new iteration eliminates all parks. Issues of type size and legibility were addressed, and line colors, station names and connections were all updated.
With Vignelli’s map making headlines, design enthusiasts have again expressed their hopes that the MTA would reissue it in paper form. Clearly, the diagram has retained its allure of yesteryear while offering up something nicer to look at than the current map. As a tool for navigation though, it still relies on basic knowledge of New York City geography and the streets above.
As a subway map buff, I own more than a few Vignelli maps of various vintages. I love the design and the decidedly 1970s approach to subway route colors. I also recognize that it wasn’t the most practical design in the world. With the Weekender, the Vignelli diagram serves its purposes, and while the technology behind the MTA’s offering may need some refining, the design is just right.