Remembering Massimo Vignelli, Acclaimed Designer of Controversial 1972 Subway Map
May 28th, 2014
Massimo Vignelli, the influential graphic designer who reimagined the MTA New York City Transit subway system as a neat grid of colored lines surrounded by a beige ocean, died Tuesday in Manhattan at the age of 83.
Vignelli’s portfolio included brand and corporate identities for some of America’s most visible companies and organizations, including American Airlines, J.C. Penney and the National Park Service. But for New Yorkers and visitors who ride the subways, he is best known for his 1972 Modernist interpretation of New York and its underground transit system.
In August 1972, the MTA unveiled a drastically different subway map designed by Vignelli. It showed the transit system as a series of straight lines that sometimes veered at 45 degree angles, rather than a more realistic tangle of curved paths. Most other metro systems in the world use a diagrammatic, not a geographical approach - most notably Harry Beck's 1933 London Underground map. New York, with its system of local and express trains, presents complications in mapping that no other transit system faces. Vignelli's diagram, along with the MTA's neighborhood maps that came along later, are intended to work together to guide customers through the system, then to their street destination. Unlike Beck, who omitted aboveground landmarks and names of neighborhoods from his map of the Tube system, Vignelli included Central Park and the names of the city’s five boroughs. He later argued against that decision by saying the map should focus on the subway system and not include distractions like geographic references.
The MTA replaced the Vignelli map with Mike Hertz’s geographic approach in 1979 after customers complained about Vignelli’s “geographic inaccuracies” -- Central Park, for example, was a square rather than its actual rectangular shape – and others found it aesthetically confusing to make the water around New York beige rather than blue.
Design fans, however, celebrated the map and made it a coveted souvenir of trips to New York. It later became part of the postwar design collection at the Museum of Modern Art.
In recent years, Vignelli worked with colleagues Beatriz Cifuentes and Yoshi Waterhouse to update the diagram. When the MTA sought a subway diagram for the Weekender website and phone app, Vignelli's improved diagram fit the need. The Weekender’s subway-only diagram is free of most geographic references – just as Vignelli had wished for his 1972 design.
More information on Vignelli’s work for the MTA and reproductions of his designs are available at the New York Transit Museum and its store.