The New York subway-map wars, continued

Massimo Vignelli ()
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Mark Krotov

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“The New York City Subway Map: Form v. Function in the Public Realm” was the official title of a panel discussion last night at the Museum of the City of New York, but The New York City Subway Map as Ideological Battleground was the implicit subject. Legendary graphic designer Massimo Vignelli was the black-clad spokesperson for pristine, beleaguered modernism; cartographer John Tauranac was the rumpled hero of populist readability. Paul Shaw (author of Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story) and Eddie Jabbour (creator of the modernist-populist hybrid Kick Map and its attendant iPhone app) represented practical criticism and homespun creativity, respectively.

The battle imagery may be a bit overstated—the panelists were uniformly gracious, friendly, and cooperative, and some very real old wars seemed, if not over, then lodged somewhere between truce and full resolution—but only slightly. Design disputes have a way of getting pretty heavily freighted.

Vignelli, who founded the design firm Vignelli Associates with his wife, Lella, in 1971, famously created the 1972 New York subway map, a revolutionary work of graphic design that transformed the city's jumble of letters, numbers, and abbreviations into grays and whites and flat colors and 45-degree angles and copious amounts of Helvetica font.

Only four years later, Tauranac, who had just designed the MTA’s official travel guide, headed a committee that ended European purity's brief underground reign (though in the late 1960s, Vignelli had also developed the MTA’s general design standards, which brought modernist precision—in the form of the signage that we still see today—into some of the city's grimiest corners for good). In 1979, Tauranac was the design chief on the effort that replaced Vignelli's map with a far less schematic, more geographic approach. Though Tauranac is now unaffiliated with the MTA (he is a writer and designs his own maps), the agency has largely relied on, and messed with, the 1979 template for the last thirty years.

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The narrative in the late 70s was—or now, in retrospect, seems to have been—that of the heroic proletariat overwhelming Italian design's repressive modernism, all cleanliness and grid. New York would embrace a map as “mongrelish” (Vignelli's derisive term) as itself. Three decades later, it's not so easy to define the battle lines, and the current subway map looks so different from both the 1972 and 1979 ones that that it's not easy to ascribe victory to one side. Chances are, though, that if you're giving it that much thought, you're the kind of person who generally assumes that the good guys lost. But who are the good guys?

Vignelli spoke first. (Each panelist was allotted five minutes by the gregarious moderator, Steven Miller, executive director emeritus of New Jersey's Morris Museum; the men each ended up speaking for closer to twenty minutes.) I had seen his appearance in Gary Hustwit's brilliant documentary Helvetica, which was about font as the site of ideological struggle. Helvetica, which originated as a humane nineteenth-century gesture towards legibility and the common reader, was embraced in the midcentury by large international corporations to “soften” their image, until the typeface became synonymous with cold imperialism. A new generation of designers identified modernism with repression, and even the Vietnam War. The film makes it impossible not to see the fight over typography as a fight over self-determination and freedom, and in it, Vignelli, an avowed old-school leftist, was as polemical and feisty on behalf of the old guard as the stakes demanded.

But the standing-room-only crowd last night met a very different man—a gracefully aging Italian armed with plenty of zingers, yes, but warm and engaging and not nearly as austere as his designs. The primacy of the diagram was the subject of his sermon, and as he cycled through the world's great cities and their cool, clear guides (“even Moscow has a diagram!”) we were led to his conclusion. If you let a diagram be a diagram and nothing more (no geography, no extraneous information), then order will be restored. But cram too much in and you get, he said, “confusion and mess.” Vignelli's horrified emphasis on that last word called to mind an angry chef tasting something fatally oversalted.

The main objection to the 1972 map was that it made it impossible to actually get around the city. Residents and tourists alike were essentially stranded when they exited the stations—they couldn’t even get their bearings. Because Vignelli never perceived the map as a navigational tool, Central Park famously shape-shifted into a fat square (wider than it is long) and the 50th Street stop on the IRT West Side Line was suddenly south of the 49th St stop on the BMT Broadway Line.

He was unapologetic about his approach, but he did offer a useful corrective to some of the criticism that has accrued over time. He and his team had originally proposed panels that displayed the subway map alongside a city map and a neighborhood map. The latter eventually made it into the stations, but city maps never moved underground. In this way, Vignelli is a man of frustrated dreams—his vision was actually contextual, but the context never emerged. For the most part, though, he seemed a man free of bitterness (hearing him articulate “Queensboro Plaza” and “Borough Hall,” two of the map's big trouble spots, was sheer joy), and his final plea—since most of the world's great cities use these sleek, modernist maps, we should use one, too—seemed optimistically universalist, though maybe excessively so, a League of Nations-like response in a WikiLeaks era.

After Vignelli's polished, accented passion, Tauranac’s gently robotic New York hum and professorial appearance was a quiet contrast. His 1979 map, which he presented with its prototypes and precedents, was revealed as a triumph of sensitive detail and attentive decision-making. This is not to impugn Vignelli, who, like Tauranac, wants everyone to get around as easily as possible. But while the former was simply unconcerned about geography and left it at that, Tauranac was concerned with everything.

He didn’t just find the current guide poorly designed—he seemed visibly outraged by it. The highest praise he could offer was that the map was “not quite random and capricious,” but his mockery of the map's “bilious” colors and its lack of a service guide (an outrage that Tauranac mocked by cycling through earlier iterations of service guides, concluding with today's version: an all-white slide with the word “Nada” in the middle) suggests that “random and capricious” might be two of the more gentle adjectives he'd consider deploying.

But Tauranac mostly spoke of what he called his “noodling.” In slow, careful detail, he guided the audience through many of his small aesthetic victories. A round subway bullet at the end of a line, a white hairline at an intersection, a no-U-turn sign to indicate the absence of a free crossover, a red letter to indicate partial service, and a passionate defense of the accordion fold—for Tauranac, these aren't just design decisions: They're profound acts of humanism, the products of an obsessive effort to transform a beast of a system into something knowable and tameable.

Toward the end of his talk, Tauranac said that the map “has become less and less didactic.” Though it took a moment to absorb the jarringly positive use of “didactic,” an adjective that’s generally a withering criticism, his empathy toward the subway rider, and his anger on her behalf, makes this an especially devastating verdict.

Vignelli and Tauranac were followed by the long-haired, impressively grey-bearded Paul Shaw, whose sly and charming presentation was a reminder of how large, complicated, and strange the New York subway system is. Cobbled together from multiple railroads and subways over many decades, it's even more of a mutt than the map that can never seem to get a handle on it.

“The MTA doesn't think of it as a subway map,” Shaw said, “but as a transportation map.” Which doesn't justify the cumbersome, distracting bus connection bubbles (Vignelli: “since we are in a country that loves cartoons...”), but does goes some way toward explaining why someone thought it was a good idea to include them.

The evening's last speaker was Eddie Jabbour, who outlined his own Kick Map and seemed mildly shocked to be sharing a stage with legends like Vignelli and Tauranac. Despite their differences, these latter two once spent a lot of time thinking about mixing colors and paper stock and misprints. They were craftsmen for whom technical and physical limitations didn't just matter—they could be deterministic. Jabbour, on the other hand, cheerfully admitted that he makes do with the once unimaginable flexibility provided by Adobe Illustrator.

Jabbour has given much thought to clarity and readability, and though some of his choices feel off (is a star to indicate an elevator really better than a wheelchair to indicate handicapped access?) and the design is a bit, well, cartoony, the Kick Map is a terrific example of just how much information can be squeezed onto a map. (One of Jabbour's maps features neighborhoods and their geographic outlines, which is ideal for a subway outing to an unexplored part of the city.)

And there is no question that Jabbour's iPhone app is inspired. At 11 p.m., for example, the app switches to a sophisticated-looking black map that features late-night service changes, and holding your finger on a station for three seconds will bring up a Google Map. The cartographic-schematic divide gets resolved almost instantly.

The success of Jabbour's app—and the promise of competing ones in the near future—added an unexpectedly elegiac tinge to the conversation.

Rather than being horrified by the new technology, which might not undermine the designer's primacy but certainly lowers the barrier to entry, Vignelli was as a boisterous defender of the app and its ability to overlay, absorb, and combine so much different information. “As a graphic designer,” he added, “I really think printing is on its way out.” Tauranac, meanwhile, asked jokingly if he could hire Jabbour's son, who designed the Kick Map app.

This, unexpectedly, left it up to the technophilic Jabbour to make an eloquent plea for what he called “the simple, lowly paper map.” “The elite have the smart phones,” he said, “but what about people who use the subway?” (Given the lack of service guides on the current maps, anyone without a smart phone—and one that gets reception underground, at that—is pretty much out of luck when it comes to basic navigation.)

Will one more set of classes be added to New York’s divisions? On one side, the smart phone users who know the name of every neighborhood through which a train passes, who can tap a finger and find the way to the most convenient exit at every station, and on the other, the flip-phoned masses who will have to continue to rely on memory, experience, intuition, and on a map against which they have to struggle? And what about the tourists?

After the talk, I overheard Tauranac describing Vignelli's gray parks as “cynical,” and I asked him to elaborate.

“It reflected a certain cynical reality,” he said cautiously. “It amazes me that he wouldn't have seen that these colors were wrong.” (Paul Shaw had earlier mentioned that the lack of neighborhood names was another objection to the Vignelli map: How could New Yorkers watch out for crime if they didn't know where they were?)

Vignelli probably didn't choose gray as a cartographic commentary on the city's bleakness, but looking at his map now, it's hard not to see the city as a faded, desolate place, and the 2010 map as a messy patchwork rapidly losing its audience to the comforts of individualized apps. It's hard to believe that a single map will never again mediate subway passengers' experience as fully as it once did. Is it the end of an era? It certainly seemed that way at the end of the talk, when a gaggle of young men gathered around a smiling Vignelli, asking him to sign their maps.