Transit Maps Are the 20th/21st Century Version of Cathedral Art

Ubiquitous, memorable, a combination of utilitarian and transcendent, challenging but only to the extent that they won’t make you too uncomfortable. I guess the comparison doesn’t go that far, but I have always been somewhat skeptical of the artwork hung in catholic churches and cathedrals across Europe being considered “art” when it was, really, a tool for instruction. Or rather, I think that it is worthwhile considering the artistic merit of other instructive signage.

Which brings me to the new NYC subway map design. The new NYC subway map design!

NYC Subway Map 2010

NYC Subway Map 2010

Replacing an iconic piece of public art & design with, well, pretty much the same thing. It’s easier to read, with smaller text, a wider Manhattan that gives the lines more horizontal breathing room, and softer colors that makes it easier on the eyes. Less squinting in the basement of the Bowery stop, I guess? But it’s really not that interesting, and from a pure design perspective, it’s kind of just bad. It doesn’t hold a candle to the amazingly abstract, schematized, iconic London Underground map. I’ve only been to London once – is the Tube map useful? Confusing? Did you end up somewhere you didn’t mean to go? The NYC map is meant to give you much more info than the Underground or the Paris subway map, for example. But I’ve seen tourists attempt to use the NYC subway map, and they usually quickly move from confusion to exasperation to desperately jumping on the next train that rolls into the station. So is having a street grid and a (sort of) geographically accurate map helpful? Is having the parks and water ways delineated on the map going to help visitors from France or Iowa find Grimaldi’s Pizza? This isn’t necessarily a facetious line of questioning; I’m really not sure.

At the risk of being charged with privileging form over function (which hopefully I’ve hedged against with my brief argument above), I’d like to submit for re-consideration Massimo Vignelli’s super awesome 1972 NYC subway map design:

NYC Subway Map, 1972

NYC Subway Map, 1972

Oh man. That thing is gorgeous. It looks like a weird electrical schematic – NYC as a mass of machinery. It was designed in 1972, but looks simultaneously 1920 and 2020 – art deco and outer space. It’s also functional (i think). It’s simple and direct – the lines are clearly differentiated, and your eye easily can find and then travel along them. It may not represent where, geographically, they go, but is that really useful information? Isn’t being able to locate your stop and transfer points the essential ingredient to the map?

NY Times has a tool to compare the details of the 4 NYC subway map designs of the last 40 years or so.

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One thought on “Transit Maps Are the 20th/21st Century Version of Cathedral Art

  1. Nah, geography’s not important. I decide on subway stops based on whether the station name is cool, or the color of lines crossing it go well together. Why would I need to know whether it’s close to my destination?

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