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Undoubtedly design improves society and permeates every aspect of our daily lives, much of which goes unnoticed. Thinking about this brought to mind the NYC Subway map. If you live in or around the city, or if you’ve ever visited, you’ve surely seen the iconic map or some version of it. Most likely you never gave much thought as to how it came into existence but the amount of effort that has gone into creating it is impressive. Following is a brief synopsis of that journey…

(But first, for a little perspective, pre-pandemic the subway had a daily ridership of approximately 5.5 million (!) and an annual ridership of roughly 1.698 billion with a total of 472 subway stations.)

There were originally three independently owned subway systems that were consolidated into one in 1940. Back then each system had its own styles, signage and maps. In 1965, the well-known Modernist graphic designer Massimo Vignelli and his business partner Bob Noorda were tasked with finding a way to modernize and unify the subway’s incredibly complex signage and navigation system.

The duo spent the first few years just watching the flow of passengers and observing their habits and how they got on and off trains and navigated their way through the underground system. Before even beginning to design the map, their research findings were consolidated into a wonderful set of design standards called The New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual.

The next step was to create the map itself, which was published in 1972. Vignelli wanted to make navigating as seamless as possible and created a concept he called going from “dot to dot”. His design did not include any above ground details and instead chose to concentrate on an easy-to-read color coded system. The stations, represented by dots, were evenly spaced so that they were easy to memorize. His goal was to help the reader know where they were on the subway line and where they wanted to go. Find out where you are and simply count the number of stops to get to where you’re going. Unfortunately, the fact that the map sacrificed being geographically accurate in order to reduce clutter was a source of frustration for riders who couldn’t relate the design to what they found above ground. (Perhaps if it had been called an infographic rather than a map it would be better understood.)

In 1979 due to pressure, the MTA replaced Vignelli’s map, as beautiful as it was, with a new style created by Michael Hertz Associates. Known as the Hertz style map, it included geographical references and the use of a single color for subway lines. It is still used today. Taking the map one step further, I recently came across the MTA’s new live subway map, which is super cool. The MTA and the Transit Innovation Partnership designed it in collaboration with Work & Co. It’s a real-time (a.k.a. LIVE!) digital map that helps riders navigate the system and can be used on a range of different digital devices. Unfortunately, its launch took place in October 2020, right in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis so it may not be getting the usage or notoriety it otherwise would have. 

The bottom line… design is so much more than creating something that is good looking. And it doesn’t happen by accident. It comes from studying, observing and sometimes drawing inspiration from other examples. And sometimes it takes trial and error to get it right.