New York City’s subway system has a new map with a very old design concept.
A pilot version of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) subway map, rolling out at a handful of stations throughout the city, has an abstract version of the city, overlaid with bold lines marking each route. It is an attempt to clarify where each line goes and how they connect at stations.
The printed map, now being tested on the walls of nine metro stations, is an updated version of a 1970s map that has become a classic example of information design. The new map simplifies the shape of the city and the precise location of metro lines to give riders an easy-to-understand overview of the system, showing which lines connect and how to get across neighborhoods or into different neighborhoods.
The new abstract maps are combined with more geographically accurate maps of the city’s bus system, providing more details on the exact location of services. MTA customer manager Sarah Meyer is leading the effort to redesign the system map, saying the bus map offers “geographical relevance” to show how many blocks it will take to get from one place to another, while the abstract metro map provides a simple way to know where to change trains or how to get across the city.
The new subway map is more than a little reminiscent of the iconic, if once controversial, subway map from 1972. The decidedly minimalist design did not take long, created by the legendary designer Massimo Vignelli and his team at Unimark International’s New York office. to raise eyebrows as the location of metro lines on the map was actually not in line with reality. In 1978, a debate on the future of the stylized but technically inaccurate card was staged at Cooper Union School of Art. As explored in a recent book by documentary filmmaker Gary Hustwit, Vignelli was pitted against the chairman of the MTA Subway Map Committee, John Tauranac, who had his own idea for a more geographically accurate map. Tauranac praised Vignelli’s version as aesthetically pleasing, but brushed it off as more art than information. “It has made some lovely T-shirts for us in the MTA. But there is no relationship between metro routes and the city above, ”said Tauranac.
The following year, Vignelli’s card was replaced by a card designed by Michael Hertz Associates, based on Tauranac’s concept. It has a more accurate representation of the city’s layout and distances between stations, but simplifies some of the metro routes by combining several lines into a single trunk. Nevertheless, it has been MTA’s subway map for more than 40 years.
A few years ago, the MTA began to reconsider the wisdom of the Hertz design in the digital age. In 2020, Meyer worked with the interactive agency Work & Co to develop a digital version of the subway map that riders could use to plan trips and see when service changes could affect their routes. Before, service updates and changes were mostly communicated on paper inside stations.
“I am personally challenged directionally and really trust maps,” Meyer says. “The break from getting our customers to use two different visual forms to try to understand where service feels wrong to me.”
One of Fast companies The winners of the Innovation By Design Awards in 2021 streamline all digital information — including real-time arrivals — into an app and a visual language map. The new printed maps tested in metro stations were developed in parallel and are the static version of the app. They are intended to be used in combination with each other, with riders able to plan origin-to-destination trips in the app and use the printed maps in stations to quickly understand routes within the system. Together with the geographically accurate bus map, they provide two levels of detail.
“The two together are a very powerful way to understand the geography of the system, where you are going and how long it will probably take you to get here,” says JP Chan, senior director of creative at MTA. “You have the best of both worlds.”
They are also meant to be used with cards that riders probably already have in their pocket. Unlike before, when the physical map in the subway station was the primary way riders could plan their journeys, riders today have several options, including smartphone map apps, digital stations in the station, and printed maps. Riders can see one or more maps depending on how much information they need, instead of relying on a single map to convey the entire system. “It’s a big burden to ask for a big poster in a station,” Chan says.
Although the new metro map can be seen as a confirmation for fans of Vignelli’s version, Meyer says the redesign is not about choosing pages, but about getting information to people effectively. “We are aiming for what is relevant for riders in 2021 and the tools they have.” (In addition, Vignelli’s cards are part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.)
The maps installed in the nine metro stations also contain a QR code that links to a web page that riders can use to provide feedback on the design. Chan says the MTA has received hundreds of responses so far, and the cards will continue to evolve ahead of a system-wide rollout. A final version of the new card is probably months away, Meyer says. “But not so many months.”