Home View from Underground A subway system easier to navigate

A subway system easier to navigate

by Benjamin Kabak

The most useful poster nowhere to be found. (Courtesy of Vignelli Associates. Click to enlarge.)

In 1966, the newly formed Metropolitan Transportation Authority was busy planning for its subway system takeover, still two years away. Within the five boroughs, the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority, as it was originally called, faced the challenge of rebranding a subway system that was, in parts, over six decades old.

At the time, the subways were a mishmash of signs and fonts. It was a graphics design nightmare. Signage left over from when the subways were run by competing corporations — the Interborough Rapid Transit company and the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Company — and the city’s own Independent Subway System dominated the tunnels and clashed with each other. There was no consistency to it, no unique identity.

To remedy this problem, the MTA turned to Massimo Vignelli, one of the foremost Modernist designers of the era. While Vignelli would come to fame and infamy in New York due to his artistic but confusing subway map, the system still relies on signage and graphics he designed over four decades ago.

Taking a modular approach to subway signs, Vignelli used a clear Sans Serif font — Akzidenz-Grotesk, a cousin of the popular Helevtica — and designed the familiar paneled signs that could be manipulated to present everything from line route information to station identification. While Vignelli’s original designs were white with black lettering, vandals armed with spray paint quickly defaced these signs, and the MTA adopted the familiar white-on-black signs we know today.

As I was poking around the Vignelli Associates Web site recently, I came upon a partial representation of one of Vignelli’s signs that you see above. I did a double-take when I saw it simply because it is exactly what the New York City subway system is missing.

Allow me to present a familiar scene. A large family, clearly not from New York, is huddled near the token booth trying to make heads or tails of the subway map. They’re at Grand St. in Chinatown; they need to get to the Upper West Side to visit their daughter at Columbia; and it’s Saturday. They can’t tell which trains are running where, what to transfer to or how to go.

Enter this long-lost Vignelli sign posted above. Adaptable to individual stations, this sign explicitly lays out how to get from that point of entry to any other major station in the system. Using two columns — one labeled “Destination,” the other “How to get there” — this sign is a textbook example of an easy and direct way to present complicated information. Suddenly, the tourists don’t need to decipher a map; they can read a sentence instructing them to take an uptown D to 59th St./Columbus Circle, where they can switch to a 1 train making local stops through the Upper West Side. Easy as pie.

Why the MTA (or, in this case, New York City Transit) doesn’t employ signs such as these in popular stations is a question I will have to research. It wouldn’t be too hard to stick these types of signs up in tourist hot spots with directions to other major New York City destinations, and, in fact, it’s easy to group stations served by the same line in nearby neighborhoods as well.

It’s a testament to Vignelli’s abilities that his designs have withstood four decades of time. They still look good in the subways today, and his designs are evocative of the New York subway system. Perhaps then we should bring back one of his earlier ideas; it’s much easier to read a sign telling riders “how to get there” then it is to decode the subway map.

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Marc Shepherd June 18, 2008 - 8:33 am

The London underground has far better way-finding signs than New York, and it had them twenty or thirty years ago.

Juan Felipe July 4, 2009 - 2:23 pm

Europe in general has far better way-finding signs (for everything, not just with public transit) than the United States.

Streetsblog » Today’s Headlines June 18, 2008 - 9:09 am

[…] by Ben Fried McCain Lays Out Energy Plan, Calls for Offshore Drilling (Boston Globe)Blumenauer: Obama Meeting Was ‘Coming of Age Moment’ for Bike Advocates (Bike Portland)Assembly Dems to Push for Windfall Profits Tax on Oil Companies (Newsday)Short on Funds, MTA Expects Not to Go Forward With Service Enhancements (News)News: Sander’s Raise Shows MTA Is ‘Tone-Deaf’New York Metro Area Has America’s Worst Traffic Bottlenecks (NY1, Newsday)NYPD Plans Ticket Blitz on Illegal Parking and Fake Placards Today (Post)’South Bronx Initiative’ to Add Bus Service and Invest in Commercial Districts (News, Sun, Post)Drivers Spurning Premium Grade Gas in Favor of Regular (NYT)A Useful Wayfinding Poster You’ll Never See in the Subway (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

R2 June 18, 2008 - 10:23 am

I’ve seen token booth clerks do this w/ the whiteboards (easy to change when there are re-routings due to service changes/disruptions)

I imagine getting asked the same question thousands of times can get, well, repetitive. Of course, more signage such as this sprinkled throughout the station would be helpful.

If there were to be such fixed signs, I would posit having the most popular destinations listed with the direct route and alternates listed right below (to cover disruptions).

Boris June 18, 2008 - 11:39 am

This is a good idea, but in our information age we need to take it another step further. The MTA should set up information terminals where one can enter a start point and end point, and have the program figure out the best way to get there. It can cover all destinations, and not just the most popular ones. If the terminals were Internet-connected, they can probably use some of the free Web apps that already exist for this purpose.

At first it might seem better (certainly, cheaper) to install this on the MetroCard vending machines, but they are designed for fast-paced, frequent use. Regular subway customers would be fuming mad at a bunch of tourists taking their time in front of a vending machine just to look up a route. So a separate information terminal is the way to go. It can also have information like local attractions, transit connections, etc.

SubwayRider June 19, 2008 - 11:06 pm

Totally unnecessary. All you have to do is look at the map, and look for any diversion notices posted in the station in case there are any. The subway is not hard to use. It’s just not.

As far as that out of town family. Frankly, I don’t give a damn. What matters the most is that the system works for locals, for whom the system is built, and locals use it just fine. And if that out of town family can’t figure it out (family must have no brains), I’m sorry, but that’s not my problem. They can ask someone.

Hermenautic Circle blog » The Other Vignelli Subway Map June 20, 2008 - 4:36 am

[…] Observed on 20 Jun 2008 How to get there: the 1972 Massimo Vignelli New York City subway map that no one ever saw. […]

Daniel June 20, 2008 - 5:49 am

I’ve stared at many a foreign subway/tube/metro map with tourist brain-freeze, I think this would be a great idea. No matter how much clarity there is in the map itself, it’s still going to be a different system for many people, whereas the humble table-with-sentences is pretty universal.

SubwayRider – is the system really just built for locals? As one of, if not the most international cities in the world (and one that makes billions from tourism), it shocks me that a resident would show so much disdain for visitors. It’s not your problem, so you don’t have to use the solution – but others might.

Marlena Corcoran June 20, 2008 - 7:12 am

The crossroads of the subway system form the structure of my novel, “Skyline Syndicate”. It’s a language-learning mystery designed to help native speakers of German improve their English–and plot their way around New York like a native New Yorker.

NYC Subway Map: Modernist’s Version « The Errant Æsthete June 21, 2008 - 12:47 pm

[…] How to get there: the 1972 Massimo Vignelli New York City subway map that no one ever saw.[via […]

DaleNapier June 22, 2008 - 6:56 pm


You do make sense in that if they can’t understand the map, then they should ask someone but come across as ignorant in every other aspect. The system needs to cater to everyone, not just locals.

The whole purpose of a subway map is to provide information in the easiest and most understandable way to those who don’t know where they are going. Yes the system works just fine for locals, but what percentage of people looking at the subway maps in a station are actually locals? Daniel is right – New York screams international and I live halfway across the globe.


Great idea. The city I live has some busy bus stations with terminals like you mention and they are very useful for people not sure how to get where they’re going. The transport system also has a web app where you enter your start and end destination (down to your street address) + what time you need to get there, and it will work out how far you have to walk, what number route to catch, how long it will take and how much it will cost. It’s brilliant and I don’t even need a map.

SubwayRider June 24, 2008 - 1:22 am

“Yes the system works just fine for locals, but what percentage of people looking at the subway maps in a station are actually locals?”

The NYC Subway system exists first and foremost, for locals – ALWAYS. I seriously really don’t give a damn about visitors, their needs are secondary to NYC residents. NYC residents should always be first priority when it comes to improving subway convenience. If you think otherwise, you’ve crazy. NYC residents live here, day in, day out, 24/7/365 and it is here for OUR needs, to get to work and to live our lives in this city, not visitors that are here for only short periods. The rest of us spend our LIVES here. Money spent on locals first, visitors second. Raise fares for Visitors first, locals as a last resort. End of story.

Zachsta January 4, 2009 - 10:17 pm

But would it actually detract from the needs of locals if the MTA were to put up some more signs intended for visitors? How much could that possibly cost, as a percentage of the MTA’s total budget? Besides, if we didn’t provide for visitors then there wouldn’t be two subway maps in every single car. Those aren’t there for amnesiac commuters, you know. You might be too busy reflecting on your coolness to notice, but New York is by leaps and bounds the number one destination for tourists in the U.S., and that adds to our economy. If you really have a problem with welcoming visitors then I can’t think of anything more stupid than living in New York.

Daniel June 24, 2008 - 1:06 pm

SubwayRider – Just because their needs are secondary, doesn’t mean those needs shouldn’t be met! In what way would these guides disadvantage the locals? Answer: they wouldn’t. If you don’t need to use them, don’t use them.

End of chapter.

The Trainjotting Interview: SecondAvenueSagas » trainjotting.com July 1, 2008 - 11:00 am

[…] a few of the quirky ones I’ve written about the 75-year history of the Second Ave. Subway and some of Massimo Vignelli’s designs for the system. Those are my favorite to write as […]

r-echos » Blog Archive » Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog » Blog Archive » A subway system easier to navigate July 15, 2008 - 5:36 am

[…] Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog » Blog Archive » A subway system easier … […]

Wearing the Vignelli subway map :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog July 3, 2009 - 12:01 am

[…] the Massimo Vignelli 1970s-era subway map. Over the last few years, I’ve written posts about Vignelli’s signage, an update to the Vignelli map and the Vignelli-inspired KickMap. I also own a handful of Vignelli […]

Abe July 3, 2009 - 3:26 pm

This type of sign actually reminds me of a console installed in the waiting areas of some Paris Metro stations; its a system map on a wall, with every stop alphabetically listed with a button on the bottom. When you push the button, a light path from your station to the destination is lit. It serves the same purpose as these Vignelli signs, but would be more expensive.


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