The New York City subway signage is considered iconic: black and white signs with Helvetica, showing just the information subway riders need, at the points they need it, and nothing more.
After decades it still does its job remarkably well. Originally the signs were black text on a white background instead of the current reverse scheme of white on black, but not much else has changed since then.
However, the map is a different story altogether. The 1972 map designed by Massimo Vignelli is considered a design classic and can be found in the collections of MoMA – even though it was replaced over 30 years ago by being too abstract for the citizens of New York City.
The current map, designed by a committee lead by John Tauranac in 1978, is a lot more geographically accurate, but looks quite different from the rest of the subway signage. The free flowing lines also add messiness to the overall feeling of the map.
This feeling is amplified by the fact that a big portion of the station names are not aligned horizontally. The map shows quite a few street names, but not really enough to function as a proper street map. Interestingly, the first version of the map showed more street names than the current version does.
The current map also combines trains running along the same trunk route to one single line, and specifies which trains stop at each stations below the station names. On one hand this brings clarity, especially to Manhattan, which would otherwise be full of crisscrossing lines. But on the other hand, it makes it harder to quickly comprehend which lines run express and which local.
Lines running local, then express, and then local again, is a special feature of the New York City subway that no map does a good job showing properly: this can be especially confusing for tourists.
Details from the Weekender map (Vignelli) on the left and the official map (Tauranac) on the right.
The diagrammatic map designed by Vignelli, that is currently used in its updated incarnation in the Weekender app, does a better job than the official map in this regard by showing every train as a separate line – but it is still hard to get an overall understanding of the express sections since every line is drawn with an equal weight.
The New Subway Map
My goal was to create a subway map that is beautiful to look at, easy to use and custom designed for New York City. This is the result.
“So good looking you want to hang it on the wall, and so easy to use it becomes your subway map of choice.” Image: Tommi Moilanen.
One of these NYC specific challenges was to find an appropriate way to differentiate between express and local trains. After having lived almost a year in New York City before starting this map project, I had never realized that D train runs basically all of Manhattan as express. It was impossible to see that from either of the official maps, without actually following the lines specifically trying to decipher that piece of information. A quick glance at the map just wasn’t enough.
Another unique feature of New York City are the five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island). They are almost like cities within a city, and the navigation in the subway system is build around them.
You don’t really need to know the exact geography of the area to be able to navigate in the city. You just need to know where the different boroughs are located.
Sign above a subway platform. Image: Tommi Moilanen.
“Brooklyn bound express train” or “Queens bound local train” are something you can hear in the announcements and see used in the station signs. By clearly showing where the boroughs are, and by differentiating between express and local trains, the map nicely matches the rest of the navigation scheme.
A detail of the new map, showing Midtown Manhattan and Central Park. Image: Tommi Moilanen.
One of the only elements of geography that anyone visiting or living in New York City can be counted on to know with almost 100 per cent certainty is Central Park and its location in the middle of Manhattan. Lots of big cities have famous parks, but the perfectly rectangular shape, the prominent location and the overall lack of green space in the city makes Central Park pretty special.
I wanted this to be reflected in the map. Moreover, most of the tourist attractions are below Central Park. It kind of functions as a “You Are Here” dot, except that it always remains in the exact same spot on the map.
Instead of showing lots of geographical details, the map highlight sights, major landmarks and museums. Those are useful navigational aides to many people. Streets are more specific to where you happen to be heading at any given time, and most of them are useless most of the time – but people can be counted on to know at least some of the major landmarks.
The numbered grid system used in New York City makes it easy to navigate the streets above ground, especially in Manhattan; and since the subway lines often follow the grid, it makes sense to include the major streets that subway lines run along into the map. They are also used in the rest of signage system on the platforms and in the trains: for example, “6 Av Local” or “Broadway Local”.
Times Square 42 St station. Image: Tommi Moilanen.
Lots of major transfer stations also happen to coincide with attractions like Times Square or Grand Central. Making these stations more prominent than the rest of the stations makes both navigating the system and locating yourself on the map easier.
This way it is also possible to show all the trains stopping at a specific station in a row below the station name, which is exactly the way you would see them at station entrances. I like this kind of connection between the map and the real world.
A detail showing Atlantic Av-Barclays Center Station. Image: Tommi Moilanen.
Highlighting major transfer points also brings clarity to otherwise messy intersections like the area around Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Rush hour service changes
Additional improvements over the current maps are a clearer way to show rush hour extensions and skip-stop trains: riders should now be able to understand these just by looking at the map.
The map also shows PATH stops within Manhattan as equal to the rest of the subway stops, since it really is a subway type rapid transit system connecting New Jersey to Manhattan. PATH also accepts Metro Card, as does AirTrain JFK which is treated in a similar manner on the map.
A detail from the map, showing the PATH station in Lower Manhattan. Image: Tommi Moilanen.
As with any design, the way it looks is as important as the way it functions. The Vignelli map is still so popular because it simply looks good. The updated version is also pretty geographically accurate, which many people may not realize since the geographic inaccuracy of the original map is so often referenced.
My design uses 30, 60 and 90 degree angles to show subway lines, instead of the more common 45 and 90 angles also used by the Vignelli map. This allows for a better geographic accuracy, while still looking more organized than the free form lines of the current map (although free form is naturally even more geographically accurate).
A screenshot of Google Maps with transit layer turned on. Image: Google.
It is worth remembering that no NYC subway map will be completely geographically accurate, since Manhattan has so many lines in such a small space compared to the rest of the city. Complete accuracy is not even needed in a subway map – ultimately, it’s about finding a way from one station to another through the network.
Subway/metro maps should always look like they belong to the specific city they were designed for, and to that specific city only. Design is always context specific and as shown above, New York City, like any other city for that matter, has its own specific features and character that should be reflected in the design.
Some of the characteristics of the new map summarised:
The right balance between utility and good looks;
The right balance between simplicity and geographic accuracy;
Works well with the rest of the signage system;
Each train is shown as a separate line;
There is a clear distinction between local and express trains;
No additional instructions needed to read the map;
The special characteristics of NYC are respected.
Tommi Moilanen is a New York-based designer. He tweets as @tviit.
If you would like to know when a 24 x 30 poster of his map becomes available for order, you can sign up for an email alert here.
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