Home Subway Maps The 1979 Map: A work in progress

The 1979 Map: A work in progress

by Benjamin Kabak

The New York City Subway map, it seems, is always controversial. At a December talk at the Museum of the City of New York, designers past and present offered up their critiques, and I’ve burned many a pixel discussing elements of the current map.

Absent from the museum discussion though was Michael Hertz, the designer of the current subway map. Hertz, who says he never received an invite to the event and was not asked to speak, contacted me to offer up his defense of his subway map and his views on the controversial history of the map. What follows are his words and views (not mine). I ran Parts One, Two and Three in December, and we pick up the tale from there. Hopefully, his explanations will help illuminate the thinking behind the current subway map.

A prototype of the new map featured trunk lines that were all red with multi-colored bullets designating train routing.

As work continued on the new map, there were a few more experiments in routing display, unseen by the public, (thank God), including a two-color and a three-color routing system. I have recently seen slides of these thanks to Peter Lloyd, but cannot remember the rationale for it, other than to offer some kind of visual separation of all the spaghetti strands. Unfortunately, people have some kind of unconscious mechanism that tries to connect different line colors with some kind of difference in meaning. Whatever we accomplished or improved was without the benefit of a real color coding system. The public outcry for color-coding the routes in some fashion continued.

It was around mid 1978 that the committee’s recommendation for a trunk line color system – a recommendation that previously had gone unheeded – was finally taken seriously. Chairman John Tauranac, with his usual energy for the project, presented the committee’s proposal to MTA Chairman Harold Fisher, and this time Fischer approved the idea. Apparently, the funding issue which was the reason we had not gone forward with this scheme until then, ceased to be an impediment. The trunk lines were the cornerstone of a new map, with an excellent rationale for dividing up the route colors into logical group, that would indeed enable us to succeed in creating a map that more people were able to use.

Strangely enough, even with all the bright people, with all the expertise you can put in one room, (the committee) It took a complete outsider, a clerk In the TA’s Electrical Department, with no connection to mapping at all, to come up with this clever notion, and put it into the suggestion box. Actually, the final product that we developed, had never been publicly tested but embodied, in a logical, orderly fashion, exactly what the riders were asking for.
Chairman Fisher knew about this tail-wagging-the-dog situation, and the new map lead the way for the whole system’s station and car signage to be turned on its head. Fisher deserves a lot of credit for his vision of a new beginning of successful navigation of New York’s subways. The MTA realized that it would take a staggering amount of money to redo all the station signage. At that time, just the fabrication of porcelain enamel signs cost about $85/sq ft (roughly estimated at that time to run close to $30 million) and I never heard any actual guesses on cost for the approximately 8,000 subway cars. The cost for design and printing of the map was almost inconsequential when compared to all the other numbers.

In contrast to Massimo’s use of eight matched Pantone colors to delineate 25 different subway lines, we elected to go for 11 matched colors for 11 lines, condensing the lines running down 8th, 7th, 6th (Ave of Americas at the time), Broadway, and Lexington, respectively, as a trunkline for each avenue of operation. You can see why Vignelli ran into problems with criss-crossing of identical colors on lines with no family relation to each other. For example, the N on Canal intersecting with the 6 on Lex, both PMS 130 (yellow-orange) is a typical ‘conflict’ spot, as is the 4 and the F at Houston, both PMS 239 (magenta).

Where route lines of the same Panatone color overlapped on the Vignelli map, navigating the system became difficult.

Massimo was forced to compromise the purity of his color palette by tinting (lightening) one of the conflicting colors in each case so as to minimize the color collision. This happens all over the map. This situation also gave me the big heads-up about considering signage and mapping as part of a continuum, not to be conceived as separate entities at separate times, but both as part-and-parcel of a master program.

The ‘tinting’ that I speak of, not only departs from the actual color specs, but was not even that reliable when printed on uncoated stock, creating less of a tone shift than will work as a difference maker. Also PMS 185 (red) does not always print with enough difference from PMS 239 (magenta) when viewed with the different light sources that must be encountered.

Concerned about our proposed yellow-orange for the ‘N’, ‘QB’, ‘R’ lines with small white ‘drop-out’ letters, I sent our tentative color palette to an ophthalmologist, specializing in color issues, who was recommended to me by the American Foundation for the Blind in Manhattan. He cautioned me about the tiny white letters, and furthermore, was dubious of the color itself when viewed in the subway cars under fluorescent lighting.

This evaluation provided the impetus for A) deepening the color, originally PMS 116, to PMS 130, and, B) changing the route designation letter to black, for this one trunk line, to the chagrin of at least one prominent designer of the 1970s. More about him next time, but if you’ve ever driven to La Guardia Airport looking for the Delta terminal (yellow-orange with a white ‘D’ and nearly invisible in the morning sun) you’ll have to acknowledge the correctness of this design decision.

Michael Hertz is the designer of many transit maps, illustrated airport directory maps and other wayfinding devices around the U.S. He designed the 1979 NY City Subway Map and has handled all of the revisions since. In 1976 he was awarded this design contract after creating five borough bus maps, and a Westchester bus map that were praised by the press and the public.

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Yanir Maidenberg January 20, 2011 - 8:03 pm

Looking through the old maps, it really gets me wondering how tourists got around NYC….I have never had any problem giving directions to out-of-town friends; they always managed to get to where they needed to go.

Steven January 20, 2011 - 10:33 pm

I was wondering if anyone on here has the neighbourhood maps that are in subway stations for the following stations: Myrtle-Wyckoff Avenues (L,M), Wilson Avenue (L), Halsey Street (L), and 75 Street-Elderts Lane (J,Z)?

The reason why I’m looking for the neighbourhood maps that are located in these stations is because some of these stations are either located on or near the Brooklyn-Queens border and I am interested in which stations are located partially in Brooklyn and partially in Queens (unfortunately, the subway map does not make it clear since some of these stations on the map are not located on the border yet I have read that they are, while others are located on the border but I have read that they are not).

John Paul N. January 21, 2011 - 1:11 am

If you have a smartphone, you can download NYCMate and download the neighborhood maps from the subway station. (I’m plugging a competitor to my own app, SchedNYC, but, oh well.)

Even without the app, living in the area for many years, I can say that Myrtle/Wyckoff (east of Gates Avenue) and Halsey Street are half in Brooklyn, half in Queens, if the center of trackage is taken as the dividing line. (Historically (dunno if it’s still technically true), the border is actually on a diagonal, but it cuts through the middle of streets.) Wilson Avenue is entirely in Brooklyn. On strip maps, the L is not designated to go into Queens.

The strip maps for the J say the 75th Street-Elderts Lane station is in Queens.

Steven January 21, 2011 - 1:17 am

I don’t have a smartphone but thanks. Yeah, I think the Myrtle-Wyckoff map I found shows that the L station is partly in Brooklyn and partly in Queens, while the M is entirely in Brooklyn. I figured Halsey was in both Brooklyn and Queens based on what I read, though the map shows it as Brooklyn. Based on the map, Wilson Ave looks to be in both boroughs but everything I read indicates it’s only in Brooklyn. However, I have read and also found some maps that seem to indicate 75 Street-Elderts Lane to be in both boroughs (I think since Elderts Lane is where the border is over there). Thanks for the reply. I would love to check out some very detailed maps for fun. I wish the city would mark the border on the streets and all for fun. I think people would find it cool to actually see where the border is when they’re outside.

John Paul N. January 21, 2011 - 1:40 am

If you visit Halsey Street, you’ll see how the entrances are staggered, i.e. the main Canarsie-bound entrance is on Halsey Street while the main MAnhattan-bound entrance is on George Street. The entrances on the other end are also in similar fashion.

Steven January 21, 2011 - 1:21 am

THe one thing that got me confused was I think I also looked at one map that showed the border right through Wilson Ave but maybe it was off or I read it incorrectly. It’s a shame the city doesn’t provide easy to access detailed maps of the border.

Benjamin Kabak January 21, 2011 - 1:22 am

Have you tried the main branch of the NYPL? If not, you could probably FOIA the surveying maps from the MTA or the city.

Steven January 21, 2011 - 1:34 am

I haven’t, but that is a good idea. There is too much confusion about the location of the border and I would like to know exactly where it is, so I’ll try both. Thanks a lot for the suggestions.

bob January 22, 2011 - 12:10 am

Department of City Planning has a lot of stuff for download:

Hopefully it is both official and accurate. Combined with a field trip (or Google Maps Sattelite View given the temperature) you might be able to cure this obsession. Or take it to new depths.

I note at the beginning of the article he mentions a 3 color version. I have a map from the 50s where each division gets a color, and that’s it. Figuring out where the train went was up to the rider, based on signage. So for all the complaints, we’ve come a long way.

Mike Hertz January 26, 2011 - 6:01 pm

to bob: re 1/20 article.
The map you have from the 50’s with 3 colored routing was based on IRT, BMT & IND lines. Our attempt was just for some visual separation, since the designations:IRT, BMT and IND had been eliminated.
Hope this helps.

Mike Hertz

Wade Penner February 12, 2011 - 11:56 pm

Michael great to see you here. I am really intrested in the colors and the color progression. Can you give all the PANTONES for the 1979 map and possibly the 1970 map? I have been searching all over the internet for this info, but just can’t find it.

Wade Penner February 23, 2011 - 8:39 pm

I found a list of the 1970 colors and I am wondering if there is a mistake in the article. In 1970 the yellow was 130, where the new yellow looks like 116. The article states you went from 116 to 130, which appears backwards.

I am still having trouble with the modern colors but here are my guesses:

Red: 185
Purple: Purple
Blue: 286
Yellow: 116
Green: 355
Brown: 154
Light Green: 376
Orange: Hexachrome Orange
Shuttle: Cool Grey 9


W.B. August 2, 2017 - 11:53 pm

The orange is 165. ‘L’ is 50% grey, while shuttles are 70% grey. (And the 116 – and 286 – colors first took effect around 1987-88.)

When this color standard was first applied in 1979, the colors were as follows:
– Red: 185
– Purple: Purple
– Blue: 300
– Yellow: 130
– Green: 355
– Brown: 154
– Light Green: 376
– Orange: 165
– JFK Express: 312
– Shuttle, 14th Street LL: 430

The 312 and 354 colors defined in the 1970 Graphics Standards Manual, if seen in dark light, could not be told apart. Apparently by the time the first Vignelli maps were printed in 1972, they switched to a lighter color for the turquoise blue lines (3, 8, E and M) from 312 to 311 – and for the green lines, darkening from 354 to 355. This would be relevant because of: a) 312’s ultimate use on the JFK Express, whose blue was a bit darker than the 3, E and M but a different tint from the A, and b) the switchover of 355 to the 4, 5 and 6 lines in ’79. I personally cross-checked the second 1972 Vignelli map in particular, against Pantone swatches and color selectors printed and put out between 1966 and 1973.


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