Celebrated Subway Map Designer Massimo Vignelli's Work on Display at Museum of Modern Art
July 03rd, 2014
You see an example of it every Friday for the MTA Weekender page. And now fans can see more of the celebrated work Massimo Vignelli designed for New York City Transit, as it is currently being featured at the Museum of Modern Art.
Vignelli, who designed the original, diagrammatic subway map for the MTA in 1972 died on May 27 of this year at the age of 83.
“MOMA’s exhibit shows how excellent design by one of the greatest minimalist designers in modern history has significantly changed how users navigate one of the biggest and most complex mass transit systems in the world,” said Paul Fleuranges, senior director, Corporate and Internal Communications at the MTA.
Vignelli, and fellow designer Bob Noorda, who at the time were working for the design firm Unimark, were originally hired by the NYC Transit Authority in 1967 to work on making the signage system more comprehensible for subway users.
The MOMA installation will exclusively feature the designer’s work for the subway, which includes the early MTA diagrammatic map, representations of the subway signage system, and the New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual.
Curated by Paola Antonelli, senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design into MOMA's permanent collection, some of the items were gifted to MOMA by the Vignellis while the signs came from the MTA, coordinated by John Montemarano, director of Signage at NYC Transit and Sandra Bloodworth, director of Arts and Urban Design for the MTA.
In 1967, a NYCTA Commissioner Daniel T. Scannell, former police officer and lawyer, led the impetus for change in NYC subway sign design. In October of that year he attended a MOMA symposium on transportation graphics and told attendees that the NYCTA (It became part of the MTA in 1968) was hiring Vignelli and Noorda to “devise a new system of signage,” recounted graphics art historian Paul Shaw.
That symposium had been organized by Mildred Constantine, MOMA’s associate curator in architecture and design, who has been largely credited with bringing together state-of-the-art thought on public sign design as early as 1954.
“The practicality of good design became evident at that time, as it does today, when we see that it is critical in your operation,” said Ms. Bloodworth. “When you value design excellence, it pays off in the customer’s experience.”
Part of the reason Scannell chose 1967-1968 to embark on the ambitious plan to redesign the subway signage and mapping diagram was confusion among passengers following the “big switch” –the overhaul of the subway system in 1967 that linked the former IND Sixth Ave. line with the BMT Nassau line. After hiring Vignelli and Noorda, what unfolded was a comprehensive set of guidelines covering the design, fabrication and installation of signs for the subway system.
By the end of June 1968, 3,000 new signs had been installed at 100 stations, and the old ones removed to reduce visual clutter, wrote Shaw. The New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual was issued in 1970, with exact specifications for signage type, spacing, letter spacing, leading and number of lines per sign. With few changes, these standards have endured to this day.
Though Vignelli’s original subway diagram published in 1972 was replaced seven years later by a map that was more literal and geographic (such as a representation of Central Park and distances from point A to B,) the MTA and Vignelli Associates worked together in 2012 to develop a digital, interactive diagram, based off the original design, for the MTA Weekender website. That website is designed to visually depict weekend subway service changes.
“Returning to Vignelli to update his design and make it applicable to changes in subway service is proof that good design never tires,” said Mark Heavey, director of Marketing for the MTA. “The fact that the diagram is more applicable to the digital age than it was in 1972 demonstrates that Vignelli was truly ahead of his time.”
The installation can be viewed at the Museum of Modern Art from 10:30 AM to 5:30 PM, at 11 W 53rd St., New York, NY 10019, telephone, (212) 708-9400. For more information about the exhibit, visit MOMA’s website.