Whenever I unfold one of my original 1970s Massimo Vignelli subway diagrams, I’m always struck by how small they are. Compared with the maps the MTA hands out today that lend themselves to awkward interactions that clearly indicate someone unfamiliar with the subways, the city or both, Vignelli’s maps open smaller than even a tabloid newspaper. They were meant to be stuffed into a pocket and consulted when needed. They also launched a thousand endless debates of form over function. To honor Vignelli, who passed away on Tuesday at the age of 83, let’s have another.
For the vast majority of New Yorkers — or at least the vast majority of New Yorkers who have heard of him — the name Massimo Vignelli conjures up images of a very distinctive style in subway map history. For 42 years, in fact, New Yorkers have debated this map, and in the minds of this city’s millions, it will be Vignelli’s lasting legacy even as our lives are infused with his designs for American Airlines, for National Parks brochures, for Big Brown Bags, for countless other items that use and exploit the stark lines of Helvetica, his preferred font.
Over the past few years, I had the opportunity to see Vignelli speak, first on a panel and later in a presentation. He had a sharp wit and a good sense of humor, but he also had a clear stubborn streak. He always felt, long after the MTA pushed him away and then brought him back into the fold, that his subway diagram — definitely not a map, mind you, but a diagram — was better than anything before it and certainly better than the overloaded mess of a map the MTA has tried to streamline in recent years. It had smooth angles, clear lines and obvious colors, and it was designed to get a straphanger from place to place underground, not from place aboveground to place aboveground via the underground.
Simplicity was key to Vignelli. During a 2012 talk at the Transit Museum, Vignelli spoke of his philosophy while heaping criticism on the current map. His design featured straight lines at 45-degree angles of various orientations. As he put it, “Line, dot, that’s it. No dot, no stop.” While looking at the current map with its curved route lines and angled text, he asked, of the Montague St. tunnel, “Who cares if the subway has to go around like that?”
New Yorkers of course hated it. Their subway map had been an amorphous blob of shades of grey, red and green, and the new Vignelli map was a shock to the system. It had so many colors and lines and angles, and for some reason, parks weren’t the right shape and 50th St. and 8th Ave. was east of 50th St. and Broadway. That, from day one, seemed to be the sticking point. Vignelli’s diagram, designed to be used by those with a modicum of knowledge about the city’s grid and in conjunction neighborhood maps that, to this day, still populate subway stops, was a geographic mess. After seven years of complaints, the MTA torpedoed his subway diagram in favor of the first version of the map we know and use today.
Over the years, Vignelli would harbor grudges against those at the TA who pushed him out, but he eventually reached a detente and a reconciliation. He redesigned his map in 2008 for Men’s Vogue, and the printing sold out nearly immediately. The diagram appeared on a dress at Nordstrom’s in 2009, and he reproduced a 2012 version that currently hangs in my living room. His design formed the basis for the MTA’s Weekender app and the Super Bowl’s Regional Transit Diagram. Long a piece in the Museum of Modern Art, his diagram is seeming here to stay in some form or another.
Massimo’s legacy extends well beyond this controversial map. In addition to the ways in which his designs have created conversation and controversy, he also streamlined signage in the subway system. He and Bob Noorda, who passed away four years ago, reimagined the way signage works and appears in the subway system. With a few changes, his Helvetica designs remain in place (though he, like I, never embraced “Exit Middle of Plat” as an appropriate shorthand for anything). The general philosophy behind subway signage lives on in the Graphics Standard Manual.
Vignelli’s passing leaves that role of stubborn, funny, cantankerous man to someone else. His map, his subway diagram, his angles and font will forever live on.