Since the London Underground was first opened on the 10th of January 1863 it has been an amazing system which has been imitated around the world with varying levels of success. One of the most interesting things as a designer is the way in which the various underground maps seem have taken on the basic same style and visual approach. Since the inception of the famous Harry Beck map in 1933 the general rule has been to forgo the true geographical nature of the city for a more simplified style. There is one exception, however.

New York City has the dubious honour of being a virtually perfect geographical map onto which the train lines are projected. Something which has both benefits and problems too. The main benefit is that you can actually navigate around the city, above ground, itself by the stations, as they are actually marked on the correct point on the map. The down-side to this tends to lead to a less structured and hard to read map. The main point seemingly lost when it comes to reading and using the map. Its sole purpose is to allow you to see, easily, where you need to get off your train. For instance, it matters not how far from 14th street, Penn station is, but how many stops are between.

The current incarnation of the Map, issued by the MTA (Mass Transit Authority), is a little confusing to those of us who are used the usual system (London, Rotterdam and Barcelona to name only a few examples) as, as we have pointed out already, it bends and twists to match the true locations of the stations. See, New Yorkers are used to a street system which is based upon a grid system and that lead the design of the map. Back in 1904 when the service first started, it was a true depiction of the city as that was how maps were. Nothing more nothing less.

In 1958 George Saloman gave the city its first true schematic map, doing away with the troubling geographical locations and simplifying it to its essence. It wasn’t so well received, however, removing small items such as Central Park, didn’t go down to well with a Proud New York public. The Map survived in that incarnation until 1971, when Massimo Vignelli was commissioned to produce a new map. The design was an instant design classic and is as good, if not better than the original underground schematic map of London. Beautifully designed with clean lines and a minimalism which helped everyone instantly, and more were won over by his re-inclusion of Central Park, albeit square.

This map was replaced in 1979 when it was redesigned to be geographical again in nature. But this time it was for a reason which has some credit. The designer, John Tauranac (an MTA employee), replaced the true locations of the map and the exact intricate nature of the tracks as it was intended to offer a greater level of security and piece of mind to those using the system. The reason for this was the evolution of New York into a much less safer place, where some residents might not wish to find themselves in certain parts of the city after dark, knowing that a train that they don’t feel turning to the left or right at the correct time, would lead them to get off the train before they found themselves in a situation they didn’t want to be in.

Since that incarnation the map has changed very little, only updates and minor refinements have been made. In 2007 the designer Eddie Jabbour produced his own map which is a hybrid of the 1971 and 1979 map, called the kick map. This has a rational argument behind its use, he is quoted as saying “why is it the Vignelli map or nothing, can’t we have the best of both worlds?” and some might agree, but I personally think that the Kick map covers too much of both worlds, giving too much credence to the geographical style.

I’ll end this (longer than intended) post by adding the final note to the ongoing New York Subway map saga, which is the very recent redesign by Vignelli – in 2008 he was asked by Men’s Vogue in the USA to update his map and recreate the classic diagramatical map he produced in the 70s. The map was given away in the May Issue of the magazine, and 500 signed copies were sold in the name of charity. Personally I think that the updated version is a beautiful piece of design which should be embraced by New Yorkers and the rest of the world.

Image © Vignelli Associates