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A peek at Massimo Vignelli’s glorious forgotten subway maps

The modernist designer Massimo Vignelli is the father of New York City’s famous 1972 subway map. Turns out he had some ideas for Washington, D.C.’s metro as well.

[Photo: Vignelli Center for Design Studies]

Last week, archivist Jennifer Whitlock at the Vignelli Center for Design Studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology was going through boxes when she discovered a series of gorgeous, abstract maps of D.C.’s public transit system–a little piece of lost history. Each one is a stunning piece of graphic design, with varying degrees of complexity; the most striking one pares the subway system’s three lines into 40 green, red, blue, and brown dots, transforming them into an abstract system of shapes that’s nearly unrecognizable from the city’s actual mess of a metro system. Others show details for how transfer stations could be represented, while still others experiment with how to lay out six subway lines in one succinct map.

[Photo: Vignelli Center for Design Studies]

While he’s best known for his map of New York City’s subway, in 1968 Vignelli did D.C. subway’s signage, too. Vignelli tried to design the map as well, but designer Lance Wyman ultimately got the job instead–perhaps because Wyman decided to include landmarks like the White House, Lincoln Memorial, and Capitol Hill. Vignelli was starkly against any kind of realism in his maps, transforming immensely complex systems into simple, efficient layouts that are lauded by design and subway enthusiasts alike today.

Follow along with Whitlock’s work as she continues to unpack the Vignelli archives here.

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