Home Subway Maps Ushering in the digital return of the Vignelli map

Ushering in the digital return of the Vignelli map

by Benjamin Kabak

The MTA's Weekender map introduced a new generation of subway riders to the wonders of Massimo Vignelli's iconic subway map.

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.

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Kevin Walsh October 11, 2011 - 12:33 pm

Shawn Lynch at


has been doing this excellently for several years already, and I’m sticking with him.

Sara October 11, 2011 - 1:01 pm

Those sunglasses don’t show the Vignelli map–they show the map that existed before the now-current one.

BrooklynBus October 11, 2011 - 1:09 pm

The only advantage of the old Vignelli map is that it made it easy to trace a route from beginning to end. That was because each route had its own color. With the switching to trunk line colors which I prefer, it is no longer easy to trace a route from one end to the other, especially when you have four green lines of the same shade right next to each other, so its advantage is lost.

The best map I’ve seen is Brennan’s map from Columbia which uses only two lines for a trunk line, one for express and one for local. I believe that is the best compromise between individual route lines and one trunk line. It makes the most sense. All he has to do is add route designations, eliminate some of the outlying rail lines and make some other tweaks and I believe it could be used.

Vignelli’s diagram is too simple and the current map is too cluttered even after being made simpler.

Eric October 11, 2011 - 1:19 pm

I have never understood the criticism of the Vignelli map as “not practical.” For its intended purpose–figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B in the subway system–it works perfectly.

It’s the same diagrammatic concept that like 95% of subway systems around the world use, including the celebrated Beck map of the London tube.

I just don’t get it.

Scott E October 11, 2011 - 1:34 pm

Eric, if Point “A” and Point “B” represent subway stops, then yes, it works perfectly. But if they represent actual city locations or landmarks – and leave it up to the reader to figure out which stops gets you there – that’s where the deficiency lies.

Eric October 11, 2011 - 4:02 pm

Scott E, you’re missing my point. A subway map is a way for people to figure out how to navigate the subway system, not a way for people to figure out how to get from Battery Park to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.

The Beck map does everything that the Vignelli map was heavily criticized for, yet it’s thrived for 80 years.

To me, all the criticisms of the Vignelli map (aside from the dislike of the original color scheme, which I share) boil down to: it’s not that useful for tourists. Well, who cares? That isn’t the primary audience for a subway map.

The awful map that we’re currently stuck with is an attempt to answer every possible question, and as a result it doesn’t satisfactorily answer any.

Andrew October 11, 2011 - 11:17 pm

So how do you expect people to figure out how to get from Battery Park to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and why shouldn’t they use the subway map? And I certainly think that tourists are one of the primary audiences for a subway map – I certainly don’t need one for my daily commute.

London’s map is excellent for what it is, but London’s stations tend to be neighborhood-oriented rather than street-oriented, and London doesn’t have anything remotely resembling a street grid. And while I do think that a Beck-style map is best for London, it does have shortcomings – how many tourists take two trains from Lancaster Gate to Paddington when they could have walked 10 minutes?

Eric October 12, 2011 - 11:50 am

I expect people to use geographic maps, not the subway map. I’ve never had a problem finding my way around in any city I’ve ever visited that uses a schematic subway map. But I still find myself staring at our subway map trying to figure out how the hell I get to a station(downtown Brooklyn, for example.)

Outside of Manhattan the geographic map is even less useful.

Peter Laws October 11, 2011 - 1:38 pm

This is the one you really want. Joe even did a series of blog posts about the design decisions he made. The original was done in Claris Works about 212 years ago:


Brian October 11, 2011 - 7:58 pm

the only good thing about that map is the connections to most commuter trains

John-2 October 11, 2011 - 1:50 pm

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.

I never thought the problem was with the parks. To me it was that Vignelli distorted the aspect ratio of some stations to their actual locations far more than was necessary even in the sections of the city where crowding of subway lines force a certain level of distortion (the seemingly mile-long walk from Bowling Green to South Ferry on his original map being the most noticeable example).

As a generalized online schematic of weekend service — where you know the lines only trying to conform to geography at the most perfunctory level — it’s less of a problem than on maps being given out to people at subway booths, which is where the people mostly likely needing something corresponding to reality would be most likely to be getting them.

Andrew October 11, 2011 - 11:26 pm

I think the major parks should be shown (but, then again, I think the current map is basically fine and definitely preferable to a schematic). How many tourists are trying to find their way to Central Park? Show the park on the map and they can easily see their options.

I honestly don’t understand why the Vignelli map is being used for this purpose. If it were actually depicting weekend service, then it would make sense to show each service independently. But the regular map could show blinking dots just as easily as the Vignelli map.

Besides, the blinking dots are worse than useless, since they don’t mean anything consistent. Perhaps they mean that trains are skipping a few stops – or perhaps they mean that the line is shut down and everybody has to ride a shuttle bus. So do I need to worry about each and every blinking dot along my route? And if I want to see what’s actually happening, I have to read the same arcane textual descriptions that so many people find so confusing.

And I think some degree of geography would be helpful on a weekend map. If your usual line is disrupted on a weekend, wouldn’t it be nice to see if there are any other nearby lines that are running normally?

The one really useful feature the Weekender has is the neighborhood maps – but why are they hidden in a section of the website only available on weekends? Post PDF’s in the map section!

Marsha October 11, 2011 - 2:44 pm

Speaking of subway maps (although a little off topic), check out who gets a shout-out in today’s New York Times.


Although it says City Room blog, this article was in today’s print edition of the Times.

Jerrold October 11, 2011 - 4:24 pm

Yes, and I have the honor of being one of the commenters there.

Kevin October 11, 2011 - 7:01 pm

Good revenue idea for the Transit Museum. Reproduce old subway maps and sell them for $5 a pop.

Benjamin Kabak October 11, 2011 - 7:02 pm

They sell a few in various sizes on their website. I don’t know why they don’t it with more. I’ve scoured eBay for a fairly comprehensive collection over the past few years.


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