Home Subway Maps Massimo Vignelli, 83, redesigned the look of the NYC subway

Massimo Vignelli, 83, redesigned the look of the NYC subway

by Benjamin Kabak

Massimo and his map. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

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.

For more on Vignelli, I recommend the obit in The Times, and a piece penned in The Wall Street Journal by friend-of-SAS Keith Williams. Michael Beirut offered up his memories of Massimo as well.

The Vignelli map, in wearable form.

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John-2 May 28, 2014 - 12:57 am

Vignelli’s signage introduced uniformity into the multiple networks of competing systems the MTA had inherited over the years from the private companies and the TA, dating back to the city’s takeover of the IRT and BMT and it’s graphic preferences. In contrast, his seemingly simple 45- and 90-degree angles on his subway map increase the complexity, because it was supposed to be part of Vignelli’s plan to detach all but the most rudimentary connection between the system and the actual layout of the city — confused riders were supposed to consult the more graphically accurate neighborhood maps at the various stations, which were never implemented. Riders would rather just deal with one map that at least gave them a clue as to how the various lines connected with the real world.

So in the end, Vignelli’s fame is based on the map, but his more lasting legacy in Helvetica to the MTA is his station signs.

Epson45 May 28, 2014 - 1:57 am

Vignelli did not use Helvetica font in the early days. Akzidenz-Grotesk was back in the day. We are still using that font right now only on subway cars rollsigns in the R62/R62A car fleet and some station platforms.

sonicboy678 May 28, 2014 - 12:10 pm

Actually, some newer car classes also use Akzidenz-Grotesk (R142A, R143, and some R160 cars).

Epson45 May 28, 2014 - 12:57 pm


sonicboy678 May 28, 2014 - 9:28 pm

Yeah, they do! Look at the car numbers on the exteriors. (Only the digits 5 and 7 break this, though they’re rendered in a compatible form.)

Epson45 May 29, 2014 - 4:48 pm

they dont

sonicboy678 May 29, 2014 - 9:40 pm

Are you sure? If you look at pictures, I’m sure you’ll see what I’m saying.

Epson45 May 30, 2014 - 2:08 am

the number plates are Helvetica

sonicboy678 May 30, 2014 - 5:50 pm

Not for those cars.

Christopher May 29, 2014 - 12:12 pm

He wanted Helvetica but the sign shop at the MTA didn’t have a license for Helvetica and so Akzidenz is what the MTA used instead. The MTA wasn’t very faithful to his work and planning. They kind of did it half-assed. Sound familiar?

Epson45 May 28, 2014 - 2:01 am

His map still lives on , now we have two maps.

Only if they could add blue color water, parks, beach, Major public institutions, etc.

BrooklynBus May 28, 2014 - 8:38 am

The worst part of his signage was the insistance of always placing the arrows on the left even when they belongs on the right. I found that extremely confusing to have the arrow pointing to the word like –> Exit. Instead of Exit –> it took the MTA something like 20 years to fix that.

Phil May 28, 2014 - 9:29 am

Am I the only person who doesn’t like the Vignelli map? That’s not to say I like the current either.

Bolwerk May 28, 2014 - 10:50 am

Behl, transit just seems to absorb people in absurdly impractical serial theoretical masturbation. Ignoring design considerations (as most of us do), I don’t think that many people actually like it. There is just a disconnect between design people who fawn over it and the desires of people in meatspace who are stuck with the implications of the serial theoretical masturbaters.

How can you be hung up on design considerations and conclude it works well even if most people don’t like it? Vignelli is a relic of the generation of design modernists who sought ideological purity over practical concerns. That would be fine, if there were some higher moral calling, but I don’t see that here.

Elvis Delgado May 28, 2014 - 11:51 am

I strongly suspect that none of us (the responders on this board) is qualified to judge the value of the various approaches to mapping the New York City Subway system. It does not seem like much of a stretch to suggest that none of us needs any sort of map and, therefore, cannot evaluate a particular one’s usefulness as a navigation tool.

As my wife said, when asked by a friend “what app” she used to pan trips, “Oh I just ask Elvis.”. In short, I can only judge a map as “art” (based on its aesthetic appeal) and not as an exercise in Information Design. And, given that we are dealing with art, there is no right answer (or, perhaps, many many right answers). If I like the Vignelli map better than the Hertz map, then it’s the better one for me (or vice versa).

But again, that’s an entirely subject and irrelevant conclusion. The “right” answer as to what’s the best map is based on science, not art, and is discoverable by testing with real people who do not already have the system committed to memory. Only when we subject a design to rigorous testing will we know which works and which does not. Personally, I believe the Vignelli design to be a fine work of art, but – honestly – I have no idea how it works as a guide to the subway system.

Bolwerk May 28, 2014 - 12:34 pm

I use the map all the time. Usually it’s to double check a small detail in a trip that is abnormal for me. I imagine most regular users who ever deviate from a regular commute are similar in that regard. These people expect geographic realism, so Vignelli does not serve them well. It could well be that people who are new to the system and don’t know local geography are better served by Vignelli or something like it.

Admittedly it’s not quite scientific, but we did try Vignelli and it wasn’t well-received.

John-2 May 28, 2014 - 3:23 pm

Vignelli’s map, and his plans to have people seeking actual topography consult neighborhood maps at the specific stations reminds me of those twin-bottle epoxy glue products, where you mix the contents of Tube A and Tube B together to create the bond.

While it might be effective, most people just one one tube of glue that’s already pre-mixed, so they can just grab it, apply the product and go. Same thing here — people for the most part would rather deal with the inelegancies of the post-1979 map as a stand-alone guide than go through the two-step procedure Vignelli wanted subway riders unfamiliar with routes and/or neighborhoods have (and as noted elsewhere, he was equally as gumpy with WMATA over their revisions to his original 1976 station graphic designs, which in many cases required a 90-degree head tilt to read the lettering in normal fashion. Changing the style to normal left-to-right may have negatively affected the ‘look’ but it gave riders less neck pain).

Christopher May 29, 2014 - 12:16 pm

But the current map doesn’t have geographical realness either. It might be somewhat closer but as I’ve learned from watching a whole group of “new to NYC” grad students attempt to use the map as a geographical indicator, it’s a mess. And by appearing “geographical” it only makes ti worse. People don’t understand how distorted the city is. Most just end up using Google because at least then they get a “real” geographical map. By trying to do both the current map doesn’t do either well.

Epson45 May 28, 2014 - 1:01 pm

You not the only one. Its pretty much the subway buffs and the design community adore his work. Or even the people who sell old Vignelli maps online make a lot of money. (OVERPRICE on the useless map to this day).

It still is “not” beautiful.

Marsha May 28, 2014 - 11:40 am

I highly recommend Michael Beirut’s memories of Massimo linked above. His essay and the related comments are very moving. Massimo Vignelli should be remembered for much more than a subway map. His design sense and generosity of spirit stand out as a testament to the man. I am sorry I was never able to hear him speak in person.

Michael May 28, 2014 - 1:51 pm

The original 1970s Massimo Vignelli subway diagrams helped me to explore the subways. As a high school student traveling to/from the Bronx to the westside midtown – his subway map told about a huge new world to discover. While many talk about the face of the subway map, they often neglect to mention the detailed notes of the various lines on the other side of the map, notes for each subway line. What trains ran when – normal hours, off-hours, weekends, terminals of the various lines in detail – all of that information on the back of the map. Information that was useful to have before exploring all of the various subway lines. Comparing the front and back of the map allowed me to formulate questions – that I would attempt to answer while visiting the line for the first time. Then I would take out pen and paper and trace a subway track diagram of what I saw riding from the front of the train.

How can the B and N skip the DeKalb Avenue station rush hours but stop there all other times? How does the QB train start during the rush hours from 57th Street? How come the E train always stops at 50th Street whether it is local or express down Eighth Avenue? These and many other questions were waiting to be answered. This was at a time when the Transit Exhibit had not opened, and well before my best friend Richard bought me a copy of Stan Fischer’s Uptown-Downtown!

With my subway map and notebook in hand, standing at the front of the train the subways were a new world to discover. The color schemes for each line made understanding the subways easier (at least to me) but it was both the details included and the details omitted that were to be discovered. Trips to various libraries to read more about the subways also helped. Before the transition from the old signs to the newer signs, the older signs were a source of much useful information. In any case, my exploration of the subway begins with these maps.

max May 28, 2014 - 2:05 pm

wonderfully put! This is the map I grew up memorizing and obsessing over.. I love the different colors for each line and I would turn the crank on roll signs in the subway cars just to see a different color/line. I loved it when trains that were out of service would barrell through a station because it meant i might see roll signs from routes i didn’t travel…QJ, M, etc.. I too would look at the detailed notes and rewrite them on index cards.

I wrote a 30 page book report in 5th grade on the subways using Uptown-Downtown. The 1972 map is framed in my lving room.

EgoTripExpress May 28, 2014 - 4:22 pm

I love the intended purpose of the Vignelli diagram, but the Kick Map (http://www.kickmap.com/) is IMO the best of all. I only wish Eddie Jabbour could get as much recognition. It’s his maps that hang in my living room.

Epson45 May 28, 2014 - 9:24 pm

its uglier then Vignelli’s map

Christopher May 29, 2014 - 12:18 pm

It’s a great map. I use the Transit app for getting around most frequently, but I check the Kickmap to figure out where I am in the system. I only use the MTA app to get status updates.

sonicboy678 May 28, 2014 - 9:43 pm

My biggest gripe with Vignelli’s map was actually rectified when it was modified for use as The Weekender on the MTA’s website. Having that excessive number of random colors never made sense to me, as there almost seems to be no correlation between routes. Granted, this may have been a byproduct of someone else’s thought processes, but his map didn’t quite help out with that when it debuted. Still, his design is far better than some earlier designs which were even less useful because they didn’t even try to indicate what routes went where on the map itself.

One could argue that this view is biased simply because I was only born in 1995, but I just think the Hertz map is more aesthetically pleasing. That’s not to say I think Vignelli’s is worth disregarding; rather, I believe it just simply wasn’t as useful as the Hertz design.

Rob May 29, 2014 - 2:39 pm

“stubborn, funny, cantankerous man” — add arrogant.

I won’t miss him.

Chuck G. May 30, 2014 - 7:42 am

” – add arrogant”

Well, he was a graphic designer. Comes with the job description.


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