Back on the map! Vignelli returns with his famous subway diagram

Back on the map! Vignelli returns with his famous subway diagram
By Stefano Giovannini

An Italian designer’s once controversial map of the New York City subway was so unpopular, straphangers demanded a replacement — but the elegant and informative diagram is making a comeback.

Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 New York City depiction of the subway system didn’t win many fans in its day due to its abstract and overly utilitarian design that focused only on the underground trip rather than above-ground landmarks — omitting most major sites and turning Central Park into a tiny square.

History, it turns out, has sided with his principled view of how a transit map should function.

“It’s a diagram, rather than a compromise between what is underground and what is above ground,” said 81-year-old Vignelli, who will discuss his famous design and an update that has made the brightly colored map the new face of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s weekend subway service advisories.

“All you want to know is how to go from point A to point B. This is why diagrams are better to convey this kind of information,” said Vignelli, who will speak at the New York Transit Museum on Sept. 12 with designer Michael Bierut.

Vignelli’s diagram bore little resemblance to New York City itself, replacing the chaos and grittiness of the streets with clean, easy-to-follow lines that thread their way across a stark-white abstraction of the boroughs at sharp angles.

New Yorkers opted for a more geographically realistic — and messy — subway map and the city scrapped Vignelli’s creation in 1979 and went back to using a hybrid street-and-line map.

Meanwhile, Vignelli’s map went on to become an icon of design.

“There is no question in the design community that this was a major piece of work,” said Transit Museum director Gabrielle Shubert. “If you look at the London transit map, that is always really abstract and they’ve been using that for a long time.”

Massimo Vignelli and Michael Bierut at the New York City Transit Museum [130 Livingston St. between Smith Street and Boerum Place in Downtown, (718) 694–1600, jump.dexigner.com/news/25531] Sept 12, 6 pm. $15, $10 for members.

Vignelli's subway map uses simple lines to achieve an elegant design.
By Stefano Giovannini