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.
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.