Missing, but not missing, Vignelli’s map


Forty years later, Vignelli's map remains a hot topic in New York City.

There’s something about Massimo Vignelli’s infamous subway map that lends itself to a constant reassessment. It comes up inevitably in any discussion about global subway map design, and the torturous chapter in New York City subway map design in the 1970s isn’t complete without a full rehashing of the Vignelli controversy. This year marks the map’s 40th anniversary, and it still manages to inspire and infuriate all at once.

Today’s missive on the Vignelli map comes to us from Alice Rawsthorn writing in The International Herald Tribune. Under the headline “The Subway Map That Rattled New Yorkers,” Rawsthorn speaks to Vignelli on the 40th birthday of his map and reviews its problems. “The map,” she writes, “was, indeed, riddled with anomalies, but that was the point.”

Design buffs have always loved his map for its rigor and ingenuity. When the future graphic designer Michael Bierut made his first trip to New York in 1976, he took one home to Ohio as a souvenir. But many New Yorkers were outraged by what they saw as the misrepresentation of their city, while tourists struggled to relate Mr. Vignelli’s design to what they found above ground. In 1979, the M.T.A. bowed to public pressure by replacing his diagrammatic map with a geographical one.

On the eve of its 40th anniversary, the story of the Vignelli map reads like a cautionary tale of a gifted designer expecting too much of the public or, as my grandmother used to say, being “too clever by half.” But its fate may have been different had the M.T.A. implemented Mr. Vignelli’s original scheme correctly…

But the M.T.A. only introduced one of four maps designed by Mr. Vignelli with the intention that, collectively, they would give passengers all the information they needed to navigate the subway. The diagrammatic System Map demonstrated how to get from A to B, but it was to be accompanied in each station by two Geographical Maps, one of the entire network and another of the local neighborhood, and a Verbal Map that explained in words how to go from place to place. Mr. Vignelli had never envisaged it being used without them.

Massimo Vignelli's controversial subway maps were to be used in conjunction with the Verbal Map. (Via Vignelli Associates)

The idea of a tripartite map has never truly caught on in New York City. Straphangers seemingly want to plan their trips in one place without having to consult confusing keys or smaller insets. The current iteration of the neighborhood maps operate similarly to Vignelli’s original plan, but the Verbal Map, above, came and went with little fanfare in the 1970s.

One of the aspects of the Vignelli Map — perhaps a better work of art than work of navigation — that I found most appealing is its divisiveness. Everyone has an opinion about whether it works or not, whether its better than our current version, whether we should one day bring it back. We can’t avoid it as part of our subway map legacy, and in fact, today, the MTA uses it as the basis for its online-only Weekender offering. Maybe its better suited for MOMA than for the back pocket of a subway rider, but it will never cease to be a centerpiece of conversation. For that, we’ll always have Vignelli.

Categories : Subway Maps

15 Responses to “Missing, but not missing, Vignelli’s map”

  1. Alex C says:

    I love the design of it. For long-time New Yorkers it may not be an issue. However, there are too many tourists, easily-confused sheep, and people new to the city for whom the Vignelli just doesn’t work. Quite honestly, the way the MTA implemented it on The Weekender is a piss-poor job, too.

  2. John-2 says:

    Vignelli pretty much came up with the subway map for people who didn’t need a subway map — artistically pleasing, especially during the era of everyone-gets-his-own-color line designation that dated from the 1967 map — but informationally deficient for those who who might not know Bowling Green is a tad closer than a mile or so away from South Ferry, as the initial 1972 edition indicated.

    The Weekender is enough of a niche application that you can safely assume anyone downloading it or checking online is already pretty savvy about, if not the entire system, at least the section of it they normally use to commute between home, office and/or the midtown area. Reviving the map for that purpose makes sense because it’s a graphic design for people who know how to get there Monday through Friday and just want to see if they can still do it on Saturday and Sunday. But being nostalgic for Vignelli’s 1970s work of art and wanting it back on a full-time basis again ignores what the purpose of the map is for, and is similar to those who are nostalgic for the MTA’s rolling street art displays of the 1970s, forgetting people actually like to see out the windows or read the route signs as they commute to work and back.

    • mwdt says:

      Some of those quirks exist in today’s map as well, though. For example, if you were to trust the MTA map, Astor Place and 3rd Ave are about a 1/2 mile apart, whereas they essentially intersect in the real world. That’s the challenge of creating any sort of diagram to represent reality, let alone a diagram designed to represent something as complicated as New York City and its Subway. 🙂

      • John-2 says:

        Manhattan’s always going to be wider than it actually is on a subway map because of the need to open up space for the graphics between and around the trunk lines. It’s unavoidable. And the error of putting 50th St. on the 1 west of Eighth Avenue was fixable by shifting the dot down.

        But Vignelli made some errors such as the Whitehall/BG/SF/Rector goofs because he was more interested in the map following form than it being accurate. Lines could only be shifted in angles of 45 or 90 degrees, which meant you couldn’t accurately place the stations at the southern tip of Manhattan because to do so would make the lines not line up correctly with downtown Brooklyn (and there are some station location howlers on that side of the East River as well).

        Again it comes down to maps designed for the general public need to go under the assumption that the person using it doesn’t know the terrain, not that they’re looking at the map for aesthetic purposes. The 1979 and onward maps still have their geographical glitches, but you don’t feel the disdain for the people who might be reading the map who truly need its assistance the way you do with Vignelli and his model.

  3. Chet says:

    I was ten years old when this map came out. For me, it was pretty much the first subway map I had to deal with, and I never had a problem with it.

    I always knew it was drawn to make everything with straight lines and didn’t represent the city as it actually was. I also remember always wondering where did the subway lines actually run if placed on a regular street map.

    I always like the look of the Vignelli map, but I never missed it.

  4. Al D says:

    We have 1 on display in our hallway, framed and everything. It’s not the first run with the KK going all the way to 168 St (I have 1, but it’s in poor shape), but a later one with the K at B’Way Junction.

  5. John says:

    The “verbal map” is something I’ve seen in other systems, and I think it can be quite useful. NYC may have too many landmarks to cover, but they could at least hit the big ones.

  6. Erik says:

    I remember my father giving me one of these on one of my first ventures into the city from Long Island. It was already 20 years old, and compared to the new map (“The Map”), I found it to be useless.

    There will always be a desire for NYC to have an iconic and beautiful map such as the London Tube. The issue is that the geography of NYC is just understandable enough to a newcomer that they want to try to figure things out from just the subway map alone. The streets are even, straight and numbered (at least where the tourists tend to congregate). Also, there are usually a number of options to get from point A to point B in Manhattan, and in order to choose the right one you need a combination of geographical and subway map. In London there usually is only one smart route, and the overlying streets are so chaotic that no newcomer expects to navigate by tube map alone.

    As an aside, I am both a map nerd and a transit nerd, so I love this topic. A friend of mine even surprised my wife and I with an amazing “subway map” piece of art for our wedding. If anyone is interested, he welcomes inquiries. I included his information in the link:

  7. digamma says:

    Would the verbal map have handled nights and weekends as well as weekdays? It’s too small for me to read there.

  8. Alex says:

    I’ve lived in the city for nearly 10 years, have lived in 3 different boroughs, and am a subway geek, (I’m reading this blog, after all.) That all said, I’d still have trouble with this map, especially if it were the only resource I had as it was back in the ’70s. The whole multiple resource thing works great… on a smart phone when you can flip between them in one place. But needing to stop and reference 2 or 3 other types of maps as you enter or leave the station is not a good solution and wouldn’t have done much to help even if they had they done it as Vignelli intended.

    I will say the individual line colors could be helpful to some folks, especially tourists. But that the F appears to run over the Manhattan Bridge drives me CRAZY!

  9. Art Wagner says:

    When I moved to the city in 1975, the Vignelli map was in use. Learning the city and the transit system was a grand adventure for me; I found the map to be beautifully useful in revealing routes without coloring one’s expectations about a certain destination. I also believed, and still do, that the map is the clearest in indicating just how complicated a certain trip might be. In today’s map, the confusion of similar colors mask the ease or difficulty of both trips and the number of potential transfers.

  10. Sugel says:

    The Vignelli map wasn’t radical—it owed a great deal to the famous London Underground map of 1933 by Henry Beck , an updated version of which is still in use. But in the quest to make the subway lines simple and clear, it distorted the shape of the city above, turning Central Park, for example, into a square. That bothered a lot of people (even though the London map has always done the same thing) and so the map was replaced, in 1979, by a subway map that more accurately reflected the geography at street level, but which is actually harder to navigate.

  11. Henry says:

    It should be possible to update the Vignelli map so that it’s more geographically accurate – it should be perfectly fine to stretch Manhattan into something more accurately reflecting its (and Central Park’s) length.

    Out of curiosity, is there a non-blinking version of the Weekender Map available? I have to say that I prefer the regular map, but the Vignelli map is kinda pretty to look at.

  12. Think twice says:

    Eddie Jabbour’s Kick Map forever. Diagrammatic pragmatism with a human touch.

    The MTA only dug out Vignelli’s map from the vault to use for The Weekender because they already have the rights to it.

  13. petey says:

    i remember older maps, and i never liked the map that i now know is called the vignelli map. it’s addicted to being design-y, and robotic looking.

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