Why New Yorkers Insisted On a "Worse" Subway Map

November 8, 2018

Simplified metro system maps have been adopted by cities around the world, but when New York City tried to follow suit, the public pushed back, and ultimately forced a reversal. But why did New Yorkers reject a map that was so "perfectly" designed?


Speaker 1: [MUSIC] In 1972, New York City introduced a new map for

Speaker 1: its subway system designed by

Speaker 1: world-renowned graphic designer Massimo Vignelli.

Speaker 1: This is widely considered one of

Speaker 1: the best design maps of the 20th century.

Speaker 1: It's simple, clean, and aesthetically pleasing.

Speaker 1: The map is so respected that the New York Museum of

Speaker 1: Modern Art has included

Speaker 1: the design in its permanent collection.

Speaker 2: It is considered one of the graphic marvels of

Speaker 2: the last century and New Yorkers hated it, so.

Speaker 1: That's Concetta Bencivenga,

Speaker 1: the director of the New York Transit Museum.

Speaker 2: The Vignelli map, it's a great sort

Speaker 2: of chapter in an incredible book,

Speaker 2: that is New York mass transit.

Speaker 1: But it's a chapter that only lasted seven years.

Speaker 1: By 1979, the map was replaced with

Speaker 1: a version of the subway map New York still uses today.

Speaker 1: So, why didn't the map work for New York City?

Speaker 1: And what can its failure teach us about design?

Speaker 1: [MUSIC]

Speaker 2: So, the MTA was formed in

Speaker 2: 1968 and one of their biggest charges was,

Speaker 2: we need to get unification

Speaker 2: and trying to move people through the system.

Speaker 2: And that was everything from unifying what

Speaker 2: the signage should look like and then

Speaker 2: certainly the big task was,

Speaker 2: is there a way to build a better map?

Speaker 1: It was Massimo Vignelli who

Speaker 1: designed the unified signage style that is still in

Speaker 1: use today so the MTA told him

Speaker 1: to take a crack at a new map design as well.

Speaker 1: And what he came up with was pretty striking.

Speaker 1: The geography was completely distorted,

Speaker 1: landmasses were smooth and rounded,

Speaker 1: subway lines were untangled and straightened to turn and

Speaker 1: cross only at 45 and 90 degree angles.

Speaker 1: Vignelli's goal was to

Speaker 1: simplify the sprawling subway system.

Speaker 1: As a result, he gave the city

Speaker 1: above ground a minimalist makeover.

Speaker 1: Central Park was shortened from a rectangle into a square

Speaker 1: and Vignelli removed all the streets in neighborhoods.

Speaker 1: And he shifted subway stops entirely.

Speaker 1: The 50th and Broadway stop is

Speaker 1: located directly south of Central Park

Speaker 1: but in Vignelli's map it's placed much

Speaker 1: farther west and Staten Island?

Speaker 1: Just gone, completely.

Speaker 1: The water wasn't even blue for crying out loud.

Speaker 1: But these design choices really aren't that radical.

Speaker 1: We can see similar simplification and distortion

Speaker 1: across all types of Metro maps and these designs stuck,

Speaker 1: because they have a proven track record of success.

Speaker 1: In 1933, London introduced

Speaker 1: a new map for its underground transit system.

Speaker 1: It was designed by Henry Beck, a technical draughtsman.

Speaker 1: He described it not as a map, but as a diagram.

Speaker 1: Because of this classification,

Speaker 1: Beck didn't have to make the design

Speaker 1: geographically accurate or even to scale.

Speaker 2: So, he kind of dropped the hammer and he basically said,

Speaker 2: this map is going to be divorced of any sort of

Speaker 2: above ground caricature or sort of illustrations

Speaker 2: that have to do with what's going on above the system.

Speaker 1: His reason was simple.

Speaker 1: People underground don't need to

Speaker 1: understand the geography above them.

Speaker 1: They just needed to know two things,

Speaker 1: where they are and where they're going.

MALE_1: [MUSIC] Nothing above ground was labeled.

MALE_1: All lines were straight,

MALE_1: all stops were equidistant and

MALE_1: the most traveled lines near

MALE_1: London's center were enlarged.

MALE_1: Beck's insights were revolutionary for

MALE_1: the time and his map was a smash hit.

MALE_1: Seven hundred thousand copies of the diagram were

MALE_1: initially printed and sold out within a month.

MALE_1: You can see the influence of

MALE_1: Beck's design across many types of subway maps.

MALE_1: Beck's simple vision has become standard

MALE_1: in cities across the world,

MALE_1: and research seems to back up

MALE_1: the benefits of this design.

MALE_1: A computer model developed at MIT scans an image and

MALE_1: produces a readout of how

MALE_1: that image is captured by peripheral vision.

MALE_1: The readouts, called mongrels,

MALE_1: show how much of an image is

MALE_1: comprehensible when the eye focuses on a specific point.

MALE_1: The MIT team tested the Boston Metro map,

MALE_1: a map that draws from Beck's influence.

MALE_1: In the test, the point of focus was

MALE_1: the MIT transit stop and the mongrel looked like this.

MALE_1: A little blurry but you can generally

MALE_1: see all the lines and where they go.

Concetta Bencivenga: Graphically, and from a

Concetta Bencivenga: design aesthetic, it's a thing of beauty,

Concetta Bencivenga: the Beck map, um,

Concetta Bencivenga: and they've been consistent for,

Concetta Bencivenga: you know, approaching 100 years.

Concetta Bencivenga: That is not the story of New York. [LAUGHTER]

MALE_1: The story of New York's subway system

MALE_1: is a little complicated.

MALE_1: Up until 1940, there were three subway systems.

MALE_1: All operating independently and

MALE_1: in direct competition with each other.

MALE_1: Each subway company produced their own map and

MALE_1: each map only included that company's subway lines.

MALE_1: If you were a New Yorker wanting to

MALE_1: travel on different companies' lines,

MALE_1: you needed different maps,

MALE_1: and the only thing that was consistent between the maps

MALE_1: was the geography of New York.

MALE_1: Subway maps continue to reflect the city's geography

MALE_1: after the subway was unified

MALE_1: and came under the city's control.

Concetta Bencivenga: And that has really been the way that

Concetta Bencivenga: New Yorkers evolved in

Concetta Bencivenga: their understanding of what to expect of a subway map.

MALE_1: That is, of course, until Vignelli's diagrammatic map.

MALE_1: Warping the geography was

MALE_1: a bridge too far for New Yorkers.

MALE_1: No one knew what stops were close

MALE_1: to their above-ground destinations.

MALE_1: There were stories of tourists getting

MALE_1: off the subway at the bottom of

MALE_1: Central Park and expecting a 30-minute stroll to the top.

MALE_1: In reality, this trip was three times as long.

MALE_1: One theory about why this was so

MALE_1: upsetting to New Yorkers was

MALE_1: that there was a significant crime problem in the 1970s.

MALE_1: People wanted to limit their time

MALE_1: underground as much as possible.

MALE_1: Vignelli's maps so distorted the locations of

MALE_1: stops that riders didn't know

MALE_1: where they needed to get off.

MALE_1: The anxiety of being lost

MALE_1: underground where you were more likely to

MALE_1: get mugged or roughed up wasn't something

MALE_1: New Yorkers wanted or needed.

MALE_1: Vignelli's diagrammatic map is easy to look at,

MALE_1: the mongrel of the map supports this.

MALE_1: But is it good or bad design?

Concetta Bencivenga: What's the best map?

Concetta Bencivenga: The best map is a map that people will

Concetta Bencivenga: use. That's the best map.

MALE_1: Good design isn't just about being nice to look at,

MALE_1: it also solves a problem.

MALE_1: With the Beck diagram,

MALE_1: the far-flung stops of London were brought closer making

MALE_1: them feel not so far-flung

MALE_1: and the city center looked more accessible.

MALE_1: But New Yorkers didn't have the same problem.

MALE_1: They already felt they had

MALE_1: a handle on navigating the city.

MALE_1: Vignelli saw too much clutter and information.

MALE_1: But New Yorkers just saw New York.

Concetta Bencivenga: It's not just the physical address.

Concetta Bencivenga: It really is, for New Yorkers for generation,

Concetta Bencivenga: the neighborhood that's going on upstairs.