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Can a subway map really be "mongrelish?"
December 10, 2010 6:37 PM   Subscribe

Three subway map design titans come together in one room to debate form versus function in NYC's transit map
posted by auto-correct (33 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
not enough pictures
posted by rebent at 6:43 PM on December 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


I personally loathe the MTA map and find the Vignelli map clean, industrial, and confusing. I have Jabbour's map on my iPhone, and I credit it with helping me utilize the subway efficiently when I'm in the city by myself. My NYC native fiancee thinks it's a cartoon kids' map, but I think she's just showing off her knowledge of the subway when she claims to like that horrid MTA map...and I happened to see on the phone bill that she paid for a full copy of the Kick Map.
posted by TrialByMedia at 7:01 PM on December 10, 2010


Neat!

Current map
Comparison of maps, via the NYTimes, including the old Vignelli map
Kick Map

I never lived through it, but the Vignelli map strikes me as completely awful. I'm really happy I don't have to deal with that thing to get from place to place. I love the current MTA map.
posted by Greg Nog at 7:02 PM on December 10, 2010


Ah! All three, side by side.
posted by Greg Nog at 7:05 PM on December 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Not sure what the big deal is. Current MTA map is pretty straightforward (whatever straightforward is for 24 lines operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year).
posted by mooselini at 7:07 PM on December 10, 2010


well, from my perspective, the problem with the MTA map is that I didn't grow up in the city, and thus did not know that, for example, the 1 is local and the 2/3 are express through most of manhattan, and yet they all appear on the same line. it's very easy for somebody that didn't grow up with the subway to get on the wrong train using that map. in other cities, like chicago, if you get on a red train, you're going to the one place that the red train goes. at first glance, the mta map might fool you into thinking the same thing.
posted by TrialByMedia at 7:11 PM on December 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Huh. I just noticed that the current map I linked is lacking in a lot of the info that's on the actual maps in the station, for some reason. Regarding the local/express trains, the more-detailed station maps (which you can see in the NYTimes link) have little numbers next to the station, so you can figure out what lines stop where. It does require a bit of squinting, though. Still, I dig its faithfulness to above-ground geography.
posted by Greg Nog at 7:36 PM on December 10, 2010


Jesus. I like nice design but the current map is still the most functional I've seen. The spaghetti of a separate line for each and every train, even when they run on the same tack, is the height of incomprehensible idiocy. And I am a ux designer.
posted by dame at 7:44 PM on December 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


Also every sign says the express is express. It is on a different track. If you mess up, you can get off and turn around. The full system map can make that info secondary to make the primary more helpful.
posted by dame at 7:49 PM on December 10, 2010


I like the present map because I can use it as a transportation map instead of just a subway map. If I know the address or main streets I can quickly find the subway stop, instead of having to know the subway stop. The black and white bubbles are also very clear.
posted by fuq at 7:50 PM on December 10, 2010


The problem isn't the map design. The problem is with the design of the subway trains themselves, and the choices made for their destinations and originations and capacities.

Major routes need major trains, trains with massive capacities, and the feeder routes out to the various boroughs need to be only slightly less massive trains, and the lines feeding the neighborhoods more along the lines of a typical subway.

The lack of a Boeing 747 of subways is the real problem.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:12 PM on December 10, 2010


I love the Vignelli map. It was designed to be a quick and easy read of only the Subway System and how lines interact and where stations are, and that it does very well. As the article pointed out, it was meant to work with other contextual maps. Plus the idea that the Subway operates on its own plane, unrelated to anything around it, appeals to me on a purely romantic level- especially when it is juxtaposed of the gritty patchwork reality that the Subway is. I file it in the same place of futurism-colliding-with-the-present as the remains of the New York World's Fair.

As a map showing geography and intermodalities, yes, it sucks, but it was never supposed to do that.

(I do think the water should be blue, or at least, blue-grey.)
posted by oneirodynia at 8:52 PM on December 10, 2010


The Vignelli map is great for the subway system itself, but it's not very helpful for knowing where you have to come back up again. But -- it is a beautiful object, no doubt.

I've no problems with the current map whatsoever. It's clear enough for the system, for the landscape up above it, and it makes for an excellent 500 piece puzzle.
posted by Capt. Renault at 9:26 PM on December 10, 2010


Three subway map design titans come together in one room

I wouldn't hate conspiracy theorists if their theories sounded like this. Imagine the wonderful world that we could live in if the conspiracies, instead of "Gay Jews injected aids into the people who knww the truth about the new world order", we had "The government doesn't want you to know, but all the guys who design subway maps formed a secret organization to talk about them."
I'm sick of a drunk dude telling me how Barack Obama was actually born in a cloning pod on Sontar for the sole purpose of destroying the human race. I'd much rather have a drunk dude tell me about a black-ops project involving Iggy Pop and Wes Anderson making a top secret dramedy at the center of the earth starring Klaus Nomi and a particularly sassy lizardman.
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 9:35 PM on December 10, 2010 [8 favorites]


I wouldn't hate conspiracy theorists if their theories sounded like this.

That's kind of what I liked about this article. It seemed like such a weird topic to get excited about (to a non-design oriented non-New Yorker), but it turned out being really interesting.
posted by auto-correct at 10:00 PM on December 10, 2010


Ahh planning and graphic design. Two of my favourite things. Thanks for this.
posted by jimmythefish at 10:48 PM on December 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


For whatever it's worth, as a visitor, I find the current map an unusable mess.

Having a clear distinction between local and express is a really good idea.

Geographic fidelity is way down on my list of prioritys - there are streetlevel maps for that.
posted by Artw at 11:18 PM on December 10, 2010


Major routes need major trains, trains with massive capacities, and the feeder routes out to the various boroughs need to be only slightly less massive trains, and the lines feeding the neighborhoods more along the lines of a typical subway.

Buh? The trains on the NYC Subway are not particularly massive. However, the system has many 4-track (express) lines, parallel routes, and extremely frequent service.

Massive trains mean really long stations, which in NYC would mean that you'd end up with one continuous station up and down Manhattan.
posted by schmod at 12:18 AM on December 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Mmm. Mongrelish.

The printed map needs to not be. You want to know where you are, how you get to X, how long it will take you, when the next bus/tram/train/plane goes, etc. You have a phone in your pocket. Say or type your request into your phone, get the answer, and go. Any graphics involved need to be electronic and automatically focused only on what you want right now.
posted by pracowity at 1:44 AM on December 11, 2010


Great interview with Jabbour on the development of the kick map. Lots of graphics.
posted by zoel at 4:43 AM on December 11, 2010


Oops. Of course I found it on Metafilter
posted by zoel at 4:53 AM on December 11, 2010


Another report on the event from Benjamin Kabak.

Self-link: A year ago I published a guest post from Mark Ovenden, author of Transit Maps of the World and Paris Underground, about the New York subway map thing, which you might find relevant to your interests.

I've been covering maps for nearly nine years and I'm amazed at just how contentious subway map design is in New York. I don't think I've seen it anywhere else.
posted by mcwetboy at 5:15 AM on December 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


As a map showing geography and intermodalities, yes, it sucks, but it was never supposed to do that.

but

The Vignelli map is great for the subway system itself, but it's not very helpful for knowing where you have to come back up again. But -- it is a beautiful object, no doubt.



hence the problem with the Vignelli map. It seems to the average shmo not useful. Whatever its intended design, subway maps, like all maps will serve more than one purpose. As an artifact, as a museum piece it is beautiful, but as a workaday thing to be used by tourist or regular straphanger, not so much.

Frankly, and i say this NOT being a designer and being utterly design challenged, a subway map should be like a toaster. It is an appliance of a sort. The most important question to ask is "Does it work?" If it is beautiful that is gravy.
posted by xetere at 6:26 AM on December 11, 2010


This year I visited Tokyo, one of the world's few subway systems that is more convoluted than New York's. Their subway map has no geographic references, like the Vignelli subway map, and I felt like I spent every cafe stop and restaurant visit juggling two or three different maps to strategize where I was going to go and which subway I was going to take to get there and how I was going to get to the subway stop.

It made me very glad for New York's own cumbersome subway map.

Now, if only I could find an app with the MTA bus maps on it...
posted by Jeanne at 6:36 AM on December 11, 2010


I suspect people with different types of brains prefer different maps. I have a very strong sense of direction and tend to keep general maps in my head. Thus, the MTA map appeals to me because I can see where the subway lines are located in relation to surface location. My wife, on the other hand, has no sense of direction and navigates by memory, landmarks, etc. I suspect that correlating the subway lines to surface location is not particularly useful for her. Having said that, I'm not sure which of these maps, if any, would be most useful for her.

Aside: With the MTA map and my mental map, I know which way the train runs, more or less where I should come up on the surface and what way I should be facing when I do so. What throws me off is when I get off a train and have to walk down multiple passages and make many turns to get to the surface. It's very disorienting to me to arrive at the surface and not be anywhere close to what my mental map says and/or facing a different direction.
posted by tippiedog at 6:50 AM on December 11, 2010


Perhaps its just me, but I don't have problems with maps. The NYC subway map seems quite easy to me.
posted by MrLint at 7:59 AM on December 11, 2010


The MTA map has all the info I need, and so I like it. I think some people might have trouble with the fact that the line on map to subway line on that track ratio is not 1 to 1 (so they like these other maps better), but once people get past that fact then getting around seems very easy. There's an extraordinary amount of info crammed into the map.

(I am a native NYer, but my mom wouldn't let me ride the subway until about 8 years ago [I am quite young]) I find the MTA maps very functional, and as I personally value function over form generally, I quite love the MTA map.

I wrote a paper about the history of New York City's subway maps two years ago, and even bought a ticket to last week's debate but didn't go because I had to study for finals :(
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 9:08 AM on December 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Frankly, and i say this NOT being a designer and being utterly design challenged, a subway map should be like a toaster. It is an appliance of a sort. The most important question to ask is "Does it work?" If it is beautiful that is gravy.

It seems like you didn't read the first half of my comment, so I'll restate it with your analogy:

A toaster is an appliance designed to do one specific thing. I don't expect my toaster to do a good job heating up a piece of pizza or making nachos- if I want to do that, I buy an appliance designed to do those specific things, like a toaster-oven. Some people might say that it is better to use a toaster for the best toast, and a real oven for the best nachos, and think that a toaster-oven is a compromise that can never perform both tasks well. Other people will think it is more convenient and space-saving to have a combination toaster-oven, even if it means the toast is somewhat dried out and you still need a big oven if you want to roast a turkey. The two appliances are designed with specific design intents that optimize certain services over another.

The Vignelli map was designed with a specific purpose, to be an easily readable schematic map of the Subway. It is not a navigational map of all of NYC, because it was never meant to be. For that, a second (and/or third) map was supposed to be displayed with the Subway system map, and that never happened. (I imagine some cigar-smoking bureaucrat with his feet up on the desk saying We paid this Vignelli guy how much for this map, and he says we need another one? Screw that guy!.)

Just as I don't evaluate my toaster on how well it melts cheese on tortilla chips, the Vignelli map should not be evaluated on anything but what it was made to do. I think one of the issues is that people have expectations of maps showing them everything they need to know to go somewhere, and that is an incredibly difficult thing to do, with many design decisions on how to do it best, and what to leave out. I have a folding map of the London Tube, which is actually three maps: a schematic map of the system, a street map of central London, and a contextual map of greater London. The people who made this little folding map felt that to have all the information that was important, I need three different maps, so that each map could have a hierarchy of information displayed in the most readable way for its purpose.

This is where Vignelli was coming from, and at the same time trying to provide a new design identity for Subway navigation throughout the system. The idea behind this plan was to bring some sense of order to the chaotic, cobbled together NYC transit system. So the Vignelli map is the system stripped down to its essence, meant to look new and modern and functional. It has issues even in that respect- New York is a grid city, New Yorkers understand exactly how many blocks it is from Grand Central to Rockefeller Station, so the design compromises were immediately apparent to anyone who knows New York. I'm not saying it is not flawed, because it is. But: I love the idea behind it, as I said above- it's a romantic notion of the modern transit system of a modern city, humming and clicking on a plane under the crust and chaos of the surface, an orderly nervous system for a complex organism.

I know how hard it is to try to navigate a city with a crummy map- I always feel sorry for any visitors trying to use BART, with its crappy signs and useless system maps. I've seen the Tube map far more often than I've seen other maps of London, and I consider it to be one of the (many) reasons that I was always so hopelessly lost on foot in that city. I totally understand why people have problems with the Vignelli map, but saying it doesn't serve a purpose for which it was never designed is missing the point.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:28 AM on December 11, 2010


If you need a map you shouldn't be going where you are going.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:40 AM on December 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


oneirodynia, I think our points are getting mixed up. I did read your comment and I understand what the Vignelli map was designed to do. What i am saying is that what it was designed to do and what the actual users expected of it were two different things and that is why it didn't work in comparison to the present map - and all the design blogs or museum exhibits won't change that fact. The Vignelli map did one thing very well, and as you say, it wasn't designed to do the other thing. Users wanted a map appliance and they wanted this map appliance to do certain things. Most people felt that doing two things reasonably well is better than doing one thing really well. The Vignelli map failed to do this.

A toaster is an appliance designed to do one specific thing. I don't expect my toaster to do a good job heating up a piece of pizza or making nachos- if I want to do that, I buy an appliance designed to do those specific things, like a toaster-oven.

But since most people *do* expect the NY subway map to do more than one thing, another map that can fulfill BOTH those requirements of the users will win, just as a toaster-oven will win over a toaster if it can toast "good enough" and do other things, and the superior toasting experience of a toaster isn't enough to justify getting a specialty appliance - unless you're a "toastie," who relishes the russet crunch of perfectly toasted bread.

So my point is that if "it doesn't serve a purpose for which it was never designed" is a *very* big deal if the actual users of said appliance expect it to serve that purpose. They won't want to hear, "well it wasn't designed for that." They couldn't give a damn.
posted by xetere at 1:04 PM on December 11, 2010


OK, a couple of points being missed. The most important is that Vignelli came along at a time when the subway system was in the process of adopting a uniform graphic identity and modern in-system wayfinding. The wonderful redundancy of the subway system is down to the original competition of two separate private companies (the BMT and IRT), and for a few years a public one (IND), which had all been merged in 1940, put into a single agency in 1953, and under the MTA in 1968 -- the exact point at which Vignelli's services were called on.

When I was living in New York in the 1980s, the system was still incompletely converted from its vintage signage which simply described lines by the streets they ran on and their ultimate destination. The entire concept, then, of a "red line" was basically new. There was a legendarily confounding sign in the Times Square multi-line transfer station that listed something like twenty different options -- not just line identifications, but outer borough destinations like Flushing -- to be found if you descended the stair it hung over.

Another point -- in other cities, like chicago, if you get on a red train, you're going to the one place that the red train goes -- is down to the design of the NYCTA incorporating express lines on several high-traffic segments, which just isn't the case in Chicago (the Red Line to Evanston is something like that, but the express tracks are only for trains coming all the way from past Howard). Chicago also used to have a confusing quasi-express for single-track operation called "skip stop" (New York at times has used something similar for outlying lines), and believe me, it's maddening to get on an A train when you have to make a B stop. Having the idea of an express to get you uptown as far as 96th then to switch to a local to reach (say) Columbia would be a definite improvement, but explaining how that works to a complete novice isn't necessarily something the map can easily do.

I will say that the sense the Vignelli map engenders of a subway unto itself, an underground world divorced from above, is almost how some New Yorkers use the system. Certainly in Manhattan, above Soho, the street grid is nearly perfectly sane and navigable. It is probably less so in the boroughs, but there are still plenty of numbered streets there, and that gives above ground a navigability that -- at least to me -- was not obnoxious. I wonder if this is a skill that's being lost (like 15-year-olds who don't know how to use rotary telephones, or address an envelope).
posted by dhartung at 4:08 PM on December 11, 2010


oh wow, I really wish I could have gone to this. I love subway maps, and I particularly adore the Vignelli one. I live in London so I'm used to the schematic - at street level I'll find a different map to tell me where I need to go. It doesn't make sense to me that the subway map is the street map.

I used the KickMap app when I went to NYC for the first time this spring, and found it really useful for getting to grips with the concept of local/express trains - not something I'd encountered before. What was interesting to me was that I actually had more difficulty learning to navigate the grid street system - it was very weird to me that the vertical streets ran the length of Manhattan. I'm used to being able to take a street name and locate myself to within that one short street, it took me a day or two to shift into the mindset of needing an x,y street name co-ordinate instead.

After about three days I was fine navigating both above ground and underground, but the mental paradigm shift required fascinated me.
posted by corvine at 6:50 AM on December 12, 2010


This year I visited Tokyo, one of the world's few subway systems that is more convoluted than New York's. Their subway map has no geographic references, like the Vignelli subway map, and I felt like I spent every cafe stop and restaurant visit juggling two or three different maps to strategize where I was going to go and which subway I was going to take to get there and how I was going to get to the subway stop.

I had the same problem when I visited New York City.

The problem is one not of maps, but of unfamiliarity with the locale.
posted by armage at 5:34 AM on December 13, 2010


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