The Secret History Of The Great Subway Map Debate Of 1978 Revealed


Transit aficionados have lengthy been enamored with the varied redesigns, reformats and debates round enhancing our subway maps—whether or not they’re geographically-oriented, clean, colourful, or historic artifacts. However actual MTA heads know that one of the pivotal moments in subway map historical past occurred within the Nice Corridor of Cooper Union in April 1978, when acclaimed designer Massimo Vignelli debated the way forward for the map with cartographer John Tauranac.

The talk, which was each an mental train and try to get suggestions from the general public about map designs, centered across the pressure between info and communication. Finally, Vignelli’s map was pushed apart and the Tauranac map, variations of that are nonetheless used to this present day, was adopted.

That seminal debate is now the topic of a brand new e-book—The New York Subway Map Debate—after design historian and Helvetica filmmaker Gary Hustwit found that archivists on the Cooper Union had not too long ago discovered an audio recording of the talk within the basement. Other than a pair quotes in The New Yorker and within the NY Instances on the time of the talk, no one actually knew what had been mentioned that night till this audio was not too long ago unearthed.

He sought to inform the story of that night time through a transcript of the talk and discussions that adopted, in addition to never-before-seen pictures taken by Stan Ries.

“It is attention-grabbing for people who find themselves into New York Metropolis and the town’s historical past, as a result of a lot of the town’s tradition and day by day life is about transit and concerning the subway system,” Hustwit advised Gothamist. “So whereas it appears identical to a bunch of individuals arguing over a map, I believe it has a deeper connection to individuals who stay within the metropolis.”

It is also of specific curiosity to designers of all types: “This is similar dialog that designers have every single day, anybody designing a web site, it is not nearly print or about maps,” he added. “It is this concept of a hierarchy of data and how one can current info to the general public in a extremely environment friendly means. It is this identical concept of type versus content material and minimalism versus maximalism.”

The Vignelli subway map


The Vignelli subway map

The 1979 Tauranac Map


The 1979 Tauranac Map

In press supplies, the talk has been described as “extremely contentious,” an outline Tauranac, who nonetheless lives on the Higher West Facet, does not fairly agree with.

“That is a phrase that I’d by no means have used to explain it, really, I by no means thought it was contentious,” Tauranac advised Gothamist. “Vignelli felt that he was above all of it, in contrast with me who had no graphic coaching in any respect to talk of.”

However there have been some basic variations in how every man approached the duty of depicting the town’s transit system. Vignelli, who died in 2014, mentioned at one level in the course of the debate that Tauranac’s map, created in collaboration with Michael Hertz Associates, made him need to “puke.”

“One of many issues that galled me about Vignelli was his archness, and the truth that he was unwilling to play tour information, as he so proudly mentioned and was picked up within the story,” mentioned Tauranac. “I had already been a licensed NYC information since not less than 1972. What’s the function of mapmaker if not information?”

An excerpt from "The New York Subway Map Debate"


Requirements Handbook & Gary Hustwit

Vignelli had helped oversee the design of a unified signage system for the subways within the late ’60s, which led to the creation of his modernist, non-geographic 1972 map, which included rounded, rainbow-tinged diagrams. Vignelli’s aesthetic model was a direct hit amongst designers, however was described as “complicated” by many locals.

“It was not meant to completely symbolize the geography of New York Metropolis,” Hustwit defined. “It was extra a diagram of the place the stops had been. So for example, they modified the areas of sure stations in order that they might higher match the grid, and the distances between stations in between areas was to not scale. This confused individuals who acquired off in a single space of city and found they had been a number of blocks away from the place they thought.”

Hustwit mentioned that the map wasn’t actually meant for use as a road map for the town. When the MTA commissioned Vignelli to make it, it was purported to be accompanied by two different maps—a geographical road map and a neighborhood map of that station’s space. Due to budgetary causes, these different maps had been by no means printed. (Clearly, this was an concept which nonetheless resonates throughout the MTA: simply final 12 months, they unveiled six complimentary subway maps at a recently-reopened station, together with a variation on the Vignelli map.)

Due to this commuter confusion, a motion quickly began to get the map modified, which led to the formation of an MTA map committee. Tauranac, who has written over half a dozen books on the town’s social- and architectural historical past, led a workforce of 12 individuals in making an attempt to revamp the map to make it extra coherent to straphangers.

“I used to be an English lit main and a historical past minor, and I did my graduate work in American city historical past,” he mentioned. “However I’ve at all times been charged with explaining the town to individuals.”

He wished to jot down a narrative about how one can navigate the undercover passageways in Manhattan, which led to him publishing a sequence of “Undercover Maps” in New York Journal within the early ’70s. He additionally wrote guidebooks for the Tradition Bus Loops run by the MTA, and was ultimately employed to jot down Seeing New York: The Official MTA Journey Information in 1976, which included a really geographical subway map.

So heading into the talk, Tauranac and the MTA committee had been hoping to get suggestions on their new information-rich designs—and particularly, to attempt to push the MTA to undertake a brand new coloration coding system, which the authority had been reluctant to comply with.

An excerpt from "The New York Subway Map Debate"



Hustwit says that regardless of his rhetorical bluster, Vignelli was at an obstacle from the beginning.

“Tauranac’s aspect had actually ready: that they had achieved research, that they had achieved surveys, that they had a psychologist there, all types of different backup proof and polls about which map individuals like higher and all types of supporting info,” Hustwit mentioned.

Vignelli already felt shortchanged by the MTA for not initially printing the opposite maps alongside his diagram, and he had a very disregard for non-designers making an attempt to inform him how one can make a superb map.

“I do not assume Vignelli was actually taken with enjoying the type of political sport of working the system of the town and the MTA,” Hustwit famous. “In case you’ve seen any of the pictures from the night time, you’ll be able to simply see in his physique language, he’s fairly disgusted that that is even taking place. He simply cannot consider anyone couldn’t agree together with his perspective.”

Tauranac, who was there as a consultant of the MTA, felt he needed to maintain again his actual emotions on the time (“I needed to be diplomatic”), however he is ready to be extra direct now.

Vignelli’s map “was convoluted, and solely handled the subway, it did not put something in perspective,” Tauranac advised Gothamist. “That is the entire level of the map, so far as I am involved. It is a map to get you not simply from level A to B, however from B to C, and C to D. Once you’re speaking a couple of subway map, the place you’re is A, and B is the subway station, then we’ll get you to C, then we’ll get you to your final vacation spot, D.”

An excerpt from "The New York Subway Map Debate"


Requirements Handbook & Gary Hustwit

Reflecting on its relevance in the present day, Hustwit says the talk speaks to “what looks as if an everlasting battle between the philosophies of communication. How do you successfully talk advanced info?” Vignelli was all a couple of minimalist method, whereas Tauranac was taken with offering as a lot info as attainable so there could be no confusion for customers.

“There are some individuals who assume design is about creating order and construction and making an attempt to tame the chaos of our world by graphic design,” Hustwit mentioned. “And there may be one other aspect that thinks it is about expressiveness and character and giving communication some emotion, and people two sides appear to be they’re at all times kind of butting up in opposition to one another.”

Regardless of the inroads he had made with the general public in the course of the debate—there was a lot constructive suggestions from questionnaires which had been handed out to these in attendance—Tauranac felt his challenge was nonetheless, in his phrases, “lifeless within the water” with out having the ability to have the trunk-based coloration coding of the totally different traces, which might assist carry readability as numerous traces diverged then got here again collectively.

However a couple of months later, he met with Phyllis Cerf Wagner, head of the MTA Aesthetics Committee, who was in a position to intervene on his behalf with the MTA heads, safe the funds, and lock within the map, which was formally adopted by June 1979. Because the Instances enthusiastically declared on the time, “At Final, A Usable Subway Map.”

Remarkably, though it is had some tweaks over the past 40+ years, the map all of us use to traverse the subway stays at its core the identical one Tauranac oversaw, which is one thing Tauranac takes pleasure in.

“I wish to say that my tombstone ought to learn, ‘He designed the subway map that works.'”