Subway Series Part 2: Grid Locked

Massimo Vignelli's 1972 New York City Subway Map (image:

This fall will mark the fortieth anniversary of the Vignelli Subway Map.  Used by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) from 1972 until 1979, this map, designed by Massimo Vignelli, who, along with Bob Noorda, is also responsible for the unified signage design of our subway system.

Many of you may remember the Vignelli Map, with its color coded train lines that ran at 45 and 90 degrees, that abstracted the subway system into a series of lines and dots.  Visually elegant, the map takes geographic liberties, for example, representing Central Park as a square when it is actually three times long as it is wide, thereby creating visual clarity by foregoing geographic clarity.  Vignelli’s map was heavily influenced by Henry Beck’s legendary 1933 London Underground Map, which also tames the tangled streets of London by reducing it to colored lines with no direct reference to physical geography.  Vignelli’s East River is beige, not blue, and Central Park is grey, not green.  In the end, the map was deemed too confusing to riders and it was replaced in 1979 by a more literal representation of the subway system designed by Michael Hertz, whose basic design is still used today.

A detail from Michael Hertz's 1979 Subway Map (image: The Gothamist)

One key reason that the Vignelli Map did not last in New York City is explained by Michael Beiruit in his article “Mr. Vignelli’s Map” in Design Observer:

The problem, of course, was that Vignelli’s system logical system [sic] came into conflict with another, equally logical system: the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan for Manhattan. …[T]he orthoginal grid introduced by the Commissioners’ Plan set out its own ordered system of streets and avenues that has become second nature to New Yorkers. …[B]ecause of the simplicity of the Manhattan street grid, every New Yorker knows that the 28th Street number 6 train stops exactly six blocks south and four blocks east of Penn Station. As a result, the geographical liberties that Vignelli took with the streets of New York were immediately noticeable, and commuters without a taste for graphic poetry cried foul.

Perhaps, then, the mistake was calling it a “map” to begin with. Vignelli’s design is more of a diagram, where the location of what lies above, namely streets and rivers and parks, is of no consequence.

In the documentary film, Helvetica, Vignelli speaks about why his “beautiful map was substituted by the junky one.”  He explains that fifty percent of humanity is visually oriented and that fifty percent of humanity is verbally oriented.  “The visually oriented people have no problems reading any kind of map… and the verbal people, they can never read a map.”  But he admits that verbally oriented people have one great advantage—they can be heard—and they complained until, in the end, the design of the map was changed.

The Vignelli Map embodies the Modernist principle that a great design should have a positive effect on all aspects of life and is much missed by design purists and subway enthusiasts alike.  In these downtrodden times, we could all use some positive vibes.  As a matter of fact, the MTA recently brought back the Vignelli Map.  In a section of their website called The Weekender, the MTA posts a map of subway schedule changes due to construction each weekend using the Vignelli design for this interactive online guide.  There has also been talk of having Vignelli create a 40th anniversary edition of his map.  What goes around,…

Click here to see the video:
Massimo Vignelli and his 1972 NY Subway map

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  1. John T’s avatar

    A very nice site!

    Diagram maps like this Vignelli subway map fail because you need two maps – one to get around the system and a second to see the streets. You can’t tell from a diagram how close some stations really are, making a potential change of trains unnecessarly. Finally, there is a flawed assumption that reference to the above ground is unneeded when you are underground; that is totally false because the majority of NYC’s subway is outdoors (outside of Manhattan, of course).


    1. Yukie Ohta’s avatar

      Yes, good point. It is mostly outdoors, and thus relation to city streets is critical. Thanks!



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