Missing, but not missing, Vignelli’s mapBy
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.
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.