Home Subway Maps Can science redeem the Vignelli map?

Can science redeem the Vignelli map?

by Benjamin Kabak

For some reason or another, we just can’t quit the Massimo Vignelli subway map. There’s something about it’s geographical distortions, clean lines and neat angles that make it an alluring piece of nostalgia. Perhaps the fact that it is in MoMA while the subways from the same era were covered in graffiti and generally unsafe lends it this aura of being of another time but also out of time when it was used throughout the system. Either way, it’s been 34 years since the MTA ditched it, but it’s still a part of any discussion on subway maps.

The reason we consider Vignelli’s subway map a collectible worthy of a modern art museum today isn’t because it was a great map, but rather because it was a great design that sacrificed geography for pure functionality. Parks were non-existent; stations were located in ways to make them easy to see but without any bearing on the street grid. Some people loved it; some people hated it. And that same debate rages today. I have a framed signed copy of the 2012 update hanging in my apartment, and while it’s a thing of beauty, I’m still not sure how well it works as a practical map of the city’s subway system.

The latest attempt to rehabilitate this map comes from science. As Eric Jaffe details at the Fast Co. Design site, researches in Boston have determined that maps similar to Vignelli’s are the best for human cognition. The idea is that considering the way peripheral vision plays a role in how we understanding our surroundings, maps with clear colors and straight lines are easier to take in. Here’s the scientific explanation for it:

Recently, some vision scientists at MIT developed a remarkably direct way to perform just this type of map evaluation. The research team, led by Ruth Rosenholtz of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, devised a computer model capable of determining how well people will comprehend a subway map (or any other complex diagram) in a single glance. The model spits out alternate visualizations called “mongrels”–twisted images that represent how our brains actually process the maps in front of our eyes.

The MIT mongrels draw on new scientific insights into peripheral vision. Research by Rosenholtz and others has suggested that peripheral vision operates by pooling together information outside a person’s direct line of sight. These peripheral pools sacrifice detail for overall impression to reduce the amount of data we process; they’re a little like a low-resolution JPEG in that sense. So the mongrels effectively show what visual elements–color, text, space, line orientation, among them–have been condensed into pools during the map’s journey from eye to brain…

[Based on the results of the study and an analysis of Boston’s current map,] a few things stand out right away. The subway lines take sharper turns that are easier to follow, especially the four now-parallel green line branches. Major transfers are also a bit more crisp as a result. The station names, now nearly all horizontal, can be distinguished (if not read). The map isn’t perfect–the silver line remains hard to spot at first–but from a perspective of peripheral vision the map does seem like an improvement…Of course, unless people are running for a train, they generally don’t have to absorb everything about a subway map in a single glimpse. But the basic lesson still applies: a map need not stay geographically faithful to be visually useful.

As for the Vignelli map itself, the MIT researchers offered some visual comparisons between Massimo’s controversial map and today’s cartographical mess. The images are telling as you can see the comparison from top to bottom between the maps as they appear in print and the maps as they seemingly appear to our peripheral vision. Vignelli’s map, in its updated form, is ultimately much easier for us to comprehend.

MIT scientists show how Vignelli's map is easier to comprehend based on human peripheral vision.

MIT scientists show how Vignelli’s map is easier to comprehend based on human peripheral vision.

Ultimately, of course, this changes little about the way subway riders use maps. If we’re in a hurry, a schematic with hard angles and clear colors is a much better choice, but if we’re sitting down to understand a subway system’s relationship to its surroundings, Vignelli’s map won’t do the trick. I’ve always though the solution lies somewhere in between, but map hard-liners hate to consider that possibility.

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Nathanael November 1, 2013 - 2:37 am

Worth noting regarding the new Boston map.

This is the first urban rail map, to my knowledge, to mark the stations which are NOT wheelchair accessible, rather than marking the stations which ARE wheelchair-accessible.

The fact that this makes a cleaner, less cluttered map shows how much progress Boston has made at wheelchair access.

The same visual choice could and should be made for most of the other “legacy” systems in the US — Chicago, Philadelphia, etc. — most of which have more accessible stations than non-accessible stations.

But it couldn’t be made for NYC, because, well, NYC is way behind.

Bgriff November 1, 2013 - 10:25 am

This is interesting but I’m not sure how useful it is–I’m not sure that the (d) picture above really imparts any information, if the idea is that you would retain the image at a quick glance or out of your peripheral vision.

For example you might be able to more quickly pick out and more easily remember that one blue line ends in Manhattan while two continue to Brooklyn from (d) than from (c), but in either map you need some close study time to learn which route is the one that ends (indeed, with the small print on the Vignelli map, some *very* close study).

That said, I do think the Vignelli, or the Kick Map, or any map showing each service as a separate line, is better, because the MTA’s argument that “people don’t want to see 16 parallel lines running down through midtown, it overwhelms them” doesn’t hold water when in fact that is just the truth, there *are* 16 lines running through midtown, and not showing it that way confuses people into thinking things are simpler than they are. It’s a complex system, it’s ultimately going to need a complex map.

Joe November 1, 2013 - 12:15 pm

I’m always surprised by how few stations in NYC are accessible—and I barely ever see wheelchair customers riding the MTA subway. In Chicago, people in wheelchairs used the ‘L’ all the time (platform attendants would even bring out a little ramp, tell the train driver where the customer was getting off, and notify the station they were disembarking at to expect them). Plus they posted escalator/elevator status boards at all the stations.

Riding the MTA must be a total nightmare for the disabled.

DF November 1, 2013 - 5:48 am

The article seems to be saying that the most important thing about a map is how much information can be quickly processed “at a glance” or relatedly “in one’s peripheral vision”. I submit that this is bears little relation to what is actually important in a map. If you are looking at a map because you want to find a particular station (or at least neighborhood, etc.), you can’t pick out a single station out of 400-whatever at a glance or in your peripheral vision.

Adam November 1, 2013 - 7:51 am

Do you have any thoughts on the Kickmap? (http://www.kickmap.com/about.html) It’s an interesting approach to finding some sort of middle-ground between the current map and the Vignelli one, with some other unique ideas. It might not be fully ready for “prime-time”, but it’s always good to see how other people handle it.

BrooklynBus November 1, 2013 - 8:07 am

Exactly what I was going to post. Youbeat me to it. I think it’s a great compromise and works the best.

BoerumHillScott November 1, 2013 - 8:09 am

From what I can see, I like the Kickmap, but the creator seems to think that only people who own Apple mobile devices should be able to see it.

Eddie November 1, 2013 - 8:26 am

Thanks Adam. Both our KickMaps (free and 24 hour version) have an iTunes 5-star user rating. MTA’s “The Weekender” app which uses the new Vignelli map has a paltry 2.5 star rating. Strict diagram maps, while certainly easier to comprehend on a very basic point A to point B level, are really a 20th century solution in a 21st century world of GPS/Google street maps, and neighborhood pride. So much more can be done as evidenced by the hybrid-diagram KickMap example.

To BoerumHillScott: We’re going to be releasing an Android version as soon as we can.

Christopher November 1, 2013 - 8:41 am

Good point. The problem with the current map (in addition to the spaghetti lines, don’t forget that London’s map prior to the Beck design was fairly similar) is that the city is SO distorted as to be confusing. People try to use it as a real map and get confused. I happen to be in contact with a lot of new residents to NYC and they all prefer Google maps after realizing that the MTA map was making them lost. The KickMAP works because it focuses on neighborhoods and not so much trying to be geographically correct. It just adds another layer of information.

There’s a fairly interesting review of the Beck map that also situates within the Transport London’s general push toward a unified and branded system in the 1930s that was customer focused. (What a novel idea!) http://www.scribd.com/doc/19934169/LUD-Articlewps

Jeff November 1, 2013 - 9:08 am

Eddie – I commend you guys for creating a nice alternative map to the MTA’s that is clean and functional, but I don’t see how you can use the reviews for the Weekender app for supporting you argument that the Vignelli map is inferior.

The 2.5 star rating is a result of a technical issue – the map doesn’t appear for people with iPhone 5’s… But for people who can open it they’ve all given it 5’s.

Eddie November 1, 2013 - 9:26 am

Unfortunately The Weekender’s app ratings have been very poor since its inception. The brilliant Vignelli map of 40 years ago was a great inspiration to us in the creation of the KickMap. But a location-accurate hybrid diagram that coordinates with a GPS based street view, while more difficult to create, is a necessary feature in modern 21st century transit mapping in our opinion.

Nyland8 November 1, 2013 - 8:57 am

If I recall correctly, Vignelli’s map was never designed to be used by itself, but only in conjunction with another feature that augmented its comprehensibility. So putting Massi’s map alone up against other maps seems to fall far short of comparing apples to apples.

Caelestor November 1, 2013 - 9:44 am

I agree the Vignelli map is far easier to read and understand. That being said, I dislike each service getting its own line on the map. Each major Manhattan trunk line should only consist of two lines to prevent the diagram from being overcrowded. Here’s an example.

Jeff November 1, 2013 - 10:03 am

The best thing about the Vignelli map is that no matter who you are or how familiar you are with the system, you can look at the map and understand what line(s) you need to take to get to where you want to go.

Out-of-towners may not know what trunk lines are and having multiple lines merged into a single line is one of the reasons why the current map is confusing to read. For this reason I dislike compromising that clarity away.

BrooklynBus November 1, 2013 - 2:33 pm

You really can’t compare yesterday’s Vignelli map with todays, since there are now trunk line colors and it is not as easy to follow the lines from one end to another.

BruceNY November 1, 2013 - 1:22 pm

Brilliant–I totally love the idea of two separate lines which clearly show the difference between local and express service. I think the Kickmap goes a bit overboard (four parallel lines per trunk route). I think the current MTA map would be so improved using your idea. I also think they should use the reverse side of the map to show weekend service, since it is vastly different (reduced) from weekday service.

BrooklynBus November 1, 2013 - 2:35 pm

I agree. Showing one line for express and another for local is the perfect compromise between trunk lines and individual routes. That Columbia map should be adapted for use as a subway map.

Nathanael November 3, 2013 - 2:12 am

That’s definitely the most comprehensible map I’ve seen, as a visitor. Separate local and express lines makes perfect sense.

Bgriff November 1, 2013 - 2:01 pm

I disagree–as I said above, the system is complicated, it will need a complicated map no matter how you do it.

In some cases the two-line proposal works–most tourists never need to care about the difference between the 2 and the 3 for example–but in some key cases, like the C/E or F/M, the difference within one of those two lines matters a lot in a central way that will affect a lot of infrequent users of the map.

The two-line proposal also requires people to reorient themselves on the platform–they see two services on the map but then have to decide among 3 or 4 line names. A Vignelli/Kickmap-type map on the other hand visually prepares them to be on the lookout for 4 different line options.

Canned Ham November 1, 2013 - 9:59 am

Dr. Maxwell Roberts at the University of Essex (UK) has done work that is far more sophisticated than the silly MIT “mongrel” group. You can see some of it here: http://privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~mjr/

Not only has he tested and analyzed various approaches to mapping, he has come up with some excellent prototype of maps that are superior to most in use today.

See: http://privatewww.essex.ac.uk/.....bemap.html

Erik November 1, 2013 - 11:41 am

When I moved to NYC in 1999, my dad gave me a tattered old Vignelli map (wish I still had it!). I got rid of it after a few days because I found it, as a newcomer to the city, to be useless.

I knew where I was and wanted to find out which station was the closest. I new where I had to go (in name only) and needed to locate that spot and see what stations were closet to that, and then figure out if a single line would work or if I needed to transfer. Vignelli only worked if I knew I had to go from THIS STOP to THAT STOP, not from THIS LOCATION to THAT LOCATION when I wasn’t already familiar with the geography or subway.

I got a “The Map”, which had been recently released, and that served me very well for a long time.

I am a very logical thinker. I do well with schematics. But Vignelli was not for me. It worked as a reference but not as a guide.

Kevin Walsh November 1, 2013 - 12:04 pm

I’m more of a literalist and I’ve always liked the Tauranac map opposed to the Vignelli. I like things like parks, etc to be shown, and I like the lager, easier to read Helvetica font in the Tauranac.

The Vignelli is just too stylized and artsy for me.

Eric Brasure November 1, 2013 - 12:22 pm

I don’t think there’s any question that schematic transit maps are easier to comprehend–it’s why the vast majority of transit agencies across the world use them.

This argument that New York has complicated geography or whatever–a lot of cities have complicated geography.

Simply put, a transit map should be a map of how to get around the system–not how to navigate the city.

My theory for why this doesn’t work well in New York is simply because of the fact that our station names are, frankly, meaningless. Unless the MTA adopts a wholesale station renaming policy to align stations with local landmarks (which, LOL) I can’t see a way out of this problem.

Take the MTA policy of attaching square names to station names–tourists don’t care that Union Square is on 14th Street, and New Yorkers don’t need to be told. So why not just name it “Union Square”?

Obviously this couldn’t be done for every station around the system–but doing it for as many as possible would greatly aid the system’s geographical navigability while using a schematic map.

Aaron Priven November 1, 2013 - 1:54 pm

Simply put, a transit map should be a map of how to get around the system–not how to navigate the city.

But the purpose of a transit system is, itself, to get around the city. The transit system is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
Too often maps are judged on aesthetics or comprehensibility when what they ought to be judged on is usefulness. The map should help people reach their destination — where their destination isn’t “the subway stop near their destination,” but their actual destination itself.
Vignelli originally proposed a bunch of other information pieces to go along with his diagram, to help people reach their final destinations. It may be that a simple diagram, along with additional material, is better than a more complicated and geographically accurate map. But this needs to be tested.

Michael Sherrell November 3, 2013 - 12:09 pm

I am going to disagree with the following statement:

“My theory for why this doesn’t work well in New York is simply because of the fact that our station names are, frankly, meaningless. Unless the MTA adopts a wholesale station renaming policy to align stations with local landmarks (which, LOL) I can’t see a way out of this problem. – See more at: http://bkabak.wpengine.com/201...../#comments

1) The majority of the NYC Subway station names are not in fact “meaningless”, but rather meaning-full – they tell the rider where they are! When one takes the 14th Street L local train and gets off at First Avenue – they know exactly where they are! Fourteenth Street and First Avenue. There are plenty of other examples.

One the features of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 – the street grid plan that gave Manhattan it’s regular series of streets and avenues – was so that folks would be able to get around such a large city without much difficulty. Not only for the location of intersections, but also down to house numbers and street addresses. For the most part, the lowest house or building number is at Fifth Avenue going higher as one travels east or west, with the corner house starting at a “100-number” on each successive major block east or west past Fifth Avenue for each street. Such that going to an address such 213 East 53rd Street, it is easy to understand that address is at Third Avenue. All of the “200 buildings” would be at the same position in the same location on each succeeding street. The “300-buildings” would be on the next block over, and so on. All of this could be done well before “Google Maps” – it was all a part of the 1811 Street Grid Plan, and carried out. This made and continues to make Manhattan relatively easy to travel around.

2) The statement “Union Square” is because – Broadway crosses an avenue, and all such intersections are called “Squares”. Union Square, Herald Square, Times Square (formerly Longacre Square), etc. Again knowing about NYC History is very helpful in this regard! While Broadway was not a part of the original street grid plan, its existence as one of the few diagonal streets in Manhattan, part of an old Indian pathway”, it is often one of the few true north streets in Manhattan.

3) The regular ordering of the streets and avenues allows one to find where they need to go easily. If a person gets off at 28th Street, and needs to go 25th Street, they know that they have to walk 3 blocks south.

4) This is unlike San Francisco’s BART or the Washington D.C. Metro Subway, where if one did not KNOW where the Fruitvale or Bay Fair stations were located, that station name sure does not help. Now the convention is to apply names to stations on newly built lines that can be really confusing. Just where is Federal Circle? It is related to office buildings? Federal government services? Or is it a place in the middle of nowhere?

5) While within the subway there has been the tendency to promote the Street name part of a subway station name, the avenue name is also important. Usually this is because if one is riding the Lexington Avenue local does not really need to be told that the 96th Street station is also at Lexington Avenue? There are some cases however where both sets of information would really be useful. Sometimes being “brief” can result in the loss of useful information, these days there is a tendency to try to be “brief”.

6) A Subway Map – is simply one representation of the subway system in compact form, that regardless of design on paper, has a limited amount of space to represent the fullness of the subway, or the city in which it is located. There are choices about what to include, promote, leave-out, or describe within any kind of subway map. Choices have to be made to keep such a map inside a compact form, especially on paper. Basically it helps to know where one is going, and to know something about that place. Or to at least have a useful guide on how to get there.



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