Waka Waka Waka
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!
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)
NY Subway Map and Tokens, 1990
Great little slice of history here. The photographer on Flickr seems to recall the cost of a token as being 60 cents at the time; Wikipedia prices it at $1.15.
As a graphic designer, all I can see is the terrible registration in the (cheap) printing — look at the huge yellow halo bleeding out to the right of the green and red printed areas. (In four-colour printing, green is made from combining cyan and yellow inks, red is made from magenta and yellow. When the plates are poorly aligned with each other, the presses run too fast, or cheap paper stretches or moves during the printing process, you get misalignment of the inks, leading to poor registration like this.)
EDIT: As has been pointed out to me, the tokens and the map shown in the photo aren’t contemporaneous. The “solid brass” token shown here was used from 1980 to 1985; during that time, the cost of a subway ride rose from 60 cents to 90 cents. (Source: nycsubway.org’s comprehensive page on subway tokens)
Historical Map: 1974 New York MTA Commuter Rail Map
Submitted by dpecs, who says:
Vignelli-inspired map (designer unknown) of the Metro-North and Long Island Rail Roads. On display until March 15th at the New York Transit Museum’s exhibit Grand By Design, on the centennial of Grand Central Terminal.
Transit Maps says:
Designer unknown? The amazing book “Helvetica and the New York City Subway” attributes this map to one Joan Charysyn, saying she designed it freelance in between stints at Vignelli Associates and Unimark. It’s my understanding that the map was designed to be part of a three-map system (commuter rail, subway, and locality map) that was meant to be displayed at every station. However, the scheme (much to Massimo Vignelli’s constant disgust) never really eventuated.
To my mind, this map isn’t quite as successful as Vignelli’s subway map, mainly because the Long Island RR is one uniform blue throughout, meaning the map provides very little in the way of routing information. This is probably fine for regular commuters, who know which train they need to catch, but isn’t so great for non-regular users of the system. It’s still a fine example of early 1970s transit map design, and is obviously the inspiration for this modern map (Jan 2013, 4.5 stars) of the Metro-North lines that I’ve featured previously.
Historical Map: 1970 NYMTA Graphics Standards Manual “Inside Line Map”
Yummy excerpt from the Massimo Vignelli/Unimark 1970 style guide, showing style and dimensions for in-car strip maps, using the “E” line as an example. Look at how everything is defined precisely and consistently: there’s absolutely no room for misinterpretation here.
Want to see more from the manual? Check out this great Flickr photoset.
(Source: Blue Pencil)
Illustration: New York City Subway Map
I’ve definitely witnessed people looking at the real map as if it resembled this — or worse.
Well, this isn’t going to win any wayfinding awards. Seriously, which idiot put a subway map this close to the floor, with downtown Manhattan at shin height?
(Source: one big shoe/Flickr)
Unofficial Map: Metro-North Railroad, New York by Robert O’Connell
Transit maps on Wikipedia can be a bit of a mixed bag. Anyone can contribute, so the quality can range from mediocre to awesome. However, Robert McConnell —also known as “the Port of Authority” — consistently produces some fantastic work. We’ve previously featured his Boston MBTA Commuter Rail map (October 2011, 5 stars), and here’s another fantastic piece.
We’ve also featured unofficial maps that show all commuter and regional rail out of New York before (Carter Green, Oct. 2012, 4.5 stars and Jake Berman, Oct. 2012, 4 stars), so it’s nice to see a map that concentrates solely on one “brand” of commuter rail, and does such a good job of it.
The map definitely wears its influences on its sleeve — the beige background, tightly-spaced Helvetica, and the severe angular diagrammatic form of the map itself are all highly reminiscent of Massimo Vignelli’s 1970s New York Subway map — but it’s still excellently executed. The addition of curves instead of sharp angles where the tracks change direction help to soften the angularity and provide a nice flow to the routes.
Some nice lateral thought has gone into this as well: almost uniquely, Robert has angled Manhattan Island at 45 degrees to the right of vertical, which works very nicely in simplifying the routes to the north and east.
He also neatly shows Harlem and New Haven line game day services to Yankee Stadium, and the (NJ Transit) Meadowlands shuttle, but curiously omits the New Haven Line “Train to the Game” Meadowlands game day service which runs from New Haven to Seacaucus Junction via Penn Station.
Overall, quite beautifully done. 4.5 stars.
An extra-special new subway line in Queens.