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)
For those of who you missed it, Transit Maps did a quick little Q&A over the weekend with the amazing Spanish design magazine and blog, Yorokobu. (Seriously, go take a look, even if you don’t speak Spanish. Totally inspiring!)
Anyway, for those of you that don’t speak Spanish (like me) and can’t/won’t use a web translation service, here’s my original answers to their questions in English. It may differ slightly to what was published because of editing, but it’s substantially the same.
Q. When did your fascination for metro maps begin?
My love of transit maps really began on my first visit to London in 1997. As a graphic designer, I was fascinated to see just how deeply embedded in the fabric of the city the map was: it was known and loved by just about everyone, and I certainly found it useful for navigating around an unfamiliar city. I bought a book from the London Transport Museum about it, “Mr. Beck’s Diagram”, and immersed myself in it. The history behind the Tube Map is quite fascinating, and it is amazing to see how it has evolved with the growing system, but still stayed true to its origins.
After that, I began dabbling with making my own maps, and have picked up quite a bit of attention over the internet for them in recent years, especially for my maps of the U.S. Interstate System and U.S. Highway system in the style of a metro map.
Q. Give me your three favourite transit maps…
The London Underground map (an easy choice) — the forefather of almost every transit map in the world. If I had to pick one absolute favourite version of it, I’d have to go with this unpublished Harry Beck version from 1961 that shows the then-planned Victoria line as a beautifully straight line.
Massimo Vignelli’s 1970s New York Subway Diagram is another beautiful piece of design, although I actually prefer the modern revival as seen on the MTA Weekender site. It’s still got the clean, minimalist look of the original, but the modern route line colours work a lot better. It’s the epitome of paring back unnecessary information to only show what’s really important: where to get on, where to transfer, and where to get off.
My third favourite map is a bit of an oddball — the S- and U-Bahn map from Stuttgart in around 2000. It’s presented isometrically, which is something I’ve never seen anywhere else, and it works very effectively. I’ve always had a soft spot for this one — details like the subtle three-dimensionality on the Hauptbahnhof (main railway station) really make this something out of the ordinary.
In Spain, an honourable mention to the Barcelona Metro map (especially in conjunction with the excellent wayfinding system at the stations), but I’m not such a huge fan of Madrid’s recent strictly rectangular map.
Q. What elements do they have to have to be successful?
A good transit map has to give the end user (the transit rider) the information they need to get from Point A to Point B, and it needs to do it quickly and effectively. Information hierarchy is paramount — the most important information (such as station names and route information) always needs to stand out clearly. Supporting information (connecting bus routes or hours of operation, for example) should be lower in the hierarchy — it’s there if you need it, but it shouldn’t distract from the main focus of the map.
Consideration for colour-blind users is important as well: there should always be good contrast between route lines that run closely together, so that they can be easily distinguished and followed by all users.
And if it can be beautiful as well, that’s just the icing on the cake!
Q. Are there any maps that stand out as not working or doing their job properly?
Plenty! Many smaller transit agencies don’t have much of a budget for map development, and try to produce their own maps internally without the specialist design knowledge it takes to create a truly useful and attractive map.
Others are simply reaching the end of their useful lifespan — I believe that the Washington, DC Metro map’s distinctive “fat” route lines are now unsustainable with the upcoming addition of the new Silver Line route — or are guilty of trying to cram too much information into a single map: the current New York subway map is a good example of this: there are callout boxes and extraneous text covering just about every pit of spare space on that map.
Q. What projects have you been involved in around transit urbanism?
I work as a graphic designer for a multinational civil engineering firm, so I get to see the “behind the scenes” look at the origination of a lot of transit-oriented projects. We do a lot of work with light rail, streetcar and bus rapid transit (BRT), so it’s fascinating to see the thought processes behind this type of work. Making my own transit maps is something I do on the side, although I feel my design is better informed because of the work I do in my day job. Recently, I also helped with the beta testing of Kick Map’s new London Underground iPhone app, which was an awesome thing to be involved with. Their “hybrid” style of mapping — diagrammatic, but with a healthy nod to the actual geography of the area being mapped — works very well on a device with a small screen like the iPhone.
Q. Is it possible to make a living from something so niche as this?
Absolutely! There are multiple companies here in the U.S. who do nothing but design transit maps and wayfinding systems, and some of them do fantastic work as well.
Q. Who do you consider the God of transit map design?
Harry Beck — the original designer of the London Underground map. While he certainly didn’t develop the idea of a diagrammatic transit map in complete isolation (there is similar contemporary work by other designers both in England and Germany), his work did popularise what we now consider to be the template for almost every transit map. Of modern transit map designers, Massimo Vignelli (NY subway) and Erik Spiekermann’s (Berlin’s post-reunification S- and U-Bahn map) importance cannot be denied. Spiekermann’s continued work with typefaces optimised for transit and wayfinding purposes increases his importance to designers.
Q. How do you convince someone that designing a map like this is incredibly complex?
The simple answer to is ask them to start designing one and see how well they do. Once you start explaining all the variables and objectives and how they all have to balance out to create a useful, aesthetically-pleasing final piece, people get the idea pretty quickly. Part of running the Transit Maps blog is definitely the “education” aspect of it. Not all transit maps are created equal, and I present my opinions (no matter how brutal they might be) so that readers can start for make their own informed decisions about how graphic design affects their lives every day.
Q. Do you often dream of redesigning certain transit maps?
All the time! I’ve already produced some very popular unofficial redesigns of the Washington, DC Metro map, Boston’s “T” map, and that of my home town, Portland, Oregon. The Washington, DC map won the readers’ vote (and came second in the juried voting) in a contest on the Greater Greater Washington website a couple of years ago. I keep my eyes out for other maps that could use a redesign…
Q. Are 2D maps the most effective or do you think we will be seeing more interactive transit maps in the future?
I think we’re already starting to see a shift away from paper to digital. New York’s just about to install interactive map kiosks at a number od subway stations, Paris already has them, and smart phone/iPad map applications (like Kick Map NY and London) are becoming more popular and useful every day. Personally, I love the feel of a printed map in my hands, but digital definitely seems to be the way of the future.
Vignelli NYC Subway Map - Street Grid
An image from Massimo Vignelli’s recent talk at the New York Transit Museum about the development of his (in)famous diagram. The chance to hear Vignelli talk about his work really makes me wish that I lived in New York.
Anyway, I find this image particularly interesting because it shows the underlying grid of streets and avenues that was used to place the route lines accurately. Although the map we see here appears to be the 2008 revision (which then evolved into “Weekender” map), you can be certain that the original 1970s version was based on a similarly exacting grid: order and structure in design is what Massimo Vignelli is famous for, after all.
(Source: *Bitch Cakes*/Flickr)
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)
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.
Fantasy Map: Tops Pizza Delivery Map for Tunbridge Wells, England
Just when I thought I’d seen every possible variation on things designed “in the style of a subway/tube map”, along comes something to prove me completely wrong. This isn’t the latest Metro system - it’s a pizza delivery map.
Have we been there? I believe I stopped in Tunbridge Wells very briefly to get some photos developed and have some lunch on my way from Hastings to London, all the way back in 1997.
What we like: Actually packed full of very useful information:the suburbs and towns around the pizza store, the roads used to get there (using the classic UK system of “A”, “B” and minor roads), the delivery charges incurred — depicted in a way akin to the modern Tube map’s Zones — and even the location of petrol stations for the delivery driver. And the legend at the bottom ties the whole thing together nicely, offering an alternative method of looking information up.
As Lee Vidal, the map’s designer says, “[the map] is designed to be a handy guide for both customers and delivery drivers like myself.”
What we don’t like: The delivery fee zones are a little distracting, due to the contorted shapes they have to make to fit around the suburbs and cities.
The colours used for roads could be a little more visually appealing, although something in the back of my head is telling me that these colours are the same as those used in UK road atlases to show road classes - can anyone confirm this for me?
Finally, the location “ticks” on the grey minor roads are a little bit long for my liking, looking more like branches of the road than a stop along the way.
Our rating: Imaginative, creative, attractive and useful. Four stars!
(Source: Designed by Lee Vidal/Flickr)
Massimo Vignelli, subway map.
Nice comparison between the 1972 and 2008 versions of the Vignelli New York subway maps. Even design classics evolve over time - and this for the better, I feel.
“We’re all going from point A to point B – how we get there is the conductor’s problem.”
Legendary designer Massimo Vignelli, mastermind of the iconic NYC subway map, on clarity and design and the story of his creation.
Love this photo. Even at 81, Vignelli is clearly passionate about his work.
1978 New York Subway Map