Book Review: “Vignelli Transit Maps”, Peter B. Lloyd with Mark Ovenden

As a graphic designer with a keen interest in transit maps and a fairly thorough knowledge of their history and usage, I thought I had a decent understanding of Massimo Vignelli’s diagrammatic version of the New York Subway map, which was used from 1972 to 1979.

This outstanding book has proved me almost completely and utterly wrong.

So much of what we think we know about the Vignelli map is simply hearsay and legend, repeated Chinese whisper-style across the internet, until we’re left with something that almost, but not quite, resembles the truth. Fueled by excellent research and interviews, and presented with beautiful (if occasionally a little small) maps, photos and illustrations, this book is essential for any lover of transit maps and good graphic design.

More than anything else I’ve read, this book places the Vignelli map in a proper historical context — what preceded it and why that left the door open for a modernist design firm (rather than cartographers) to produce something new, but also what led to its abrupt and premature death in 1979. There’s definitely more to the story than the usual “New Yorkers didn’t like a diagram/square Central Park/beige water” reasons that you often hear.

As well as a thorough analysis of the map itself — reproductions and accompanying text are presented for every version of the map — the book also delves deeply into the labour-intensive and time-consuming production methods required to create a map as complex as this in the days before computer-aided design. Asked to come up with an initial conceptual “trial map” in 1970, junior designer Joan Charysyn (who also independently created this New York Commuter Rail diagram in 1974) had to hand-cut pieces of PANTONE colour film into 1/8” strips and then assemble the route lines onto a one-foot-square board, adding station label type as well. Of the work, Charysyn simply states, “the execution of the comp was tedious and done in as few pieces as possible.”

The book also deals with Vignelli’s work for the Washington, DC Metro: he designed the wayfinding and station signage that is still largely in use today, but the contract for the system map was given separately to Lance Wyman. The book shows some of Vignelli’s very early (and very minimalist!) conceptual sketches for the map, and explains exactly why Lance Wyman’s proposed station icons (similar to the ones he had designed for Mexico City’s Metro) never got off the ground.

The book also discusses the reintroduction of the Vignelli map in 2008, comparing and contrasting it against the other modern player in the New York Subway map market — Eddie Jabbour’s Kick Map (Jabbour writes a preface for the book, and his admiration for Vignelli’s design philosophy and body of work is obvious).

This book is absolutely essential for any lover or student of transit maps or graphic design. It’s well written, thoroughly researched and beautiful to look at: what more do you need? Five stars!

5 Stars!

Published by RIT Press, December 2012. 128pp.
Order page is here — Book is $US34.99 plus shipping.

(Note: Transit Maps purchased their own copy of this book, and did not receive any compensation for this review, financial or otherwise)

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    i mean if someone were ever wondering what to buy me as a gift this would be a good place to start
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  6. hettie reblogged this from transitmaps and added:
    not a graphic designer in any capacity, just someone who likes to draw sometimes, but i want this book. also, i use...
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