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NYC’s new subway tool settles the biggest debate in maps

It’s the map to end all subway maps. Plus: See an exclusive video about the map by filmmaker Gary Hustwit.

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Just when you think you’ve mastered the New York City subway system, it throws a curveball at you. A station or line is closed. A train suddenly runs uptown only. The paper maps plastered all over stations are of little help in this situation. It’s why the MTA is constantly printing out all sorts of extra signs and posting them in stations ad hoc to help New Yorkers and visitors navigate the city. But what if there were a map that could signal this dynamic information intrinsically, no makeshift signage required?

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Today, the MTA is launching just that. Designed by the digital agency Work & Co with support from the Transit Innovation Partnership, the MTA’s new digital map is an ever-changing, living entity that combines the best features from two famous maps that have come before. And it’s done during a time when no one wants to spend extra minutes in a subway station trying to figure out how to get from point a to point b.

[Image: Work & Co]
The MTA’s approach to mapping is one of the most studied and debated topics in historical graphic design, which comes down to a question of which is more important when navigating subterranean tunnels: informational clarity or geographic literality?

[Image: Work & Co]
Visit the new site here (it’s perhaps best on mobile), and you will see the entire NYC subway system. Hit the GPS button and you can see where you are, just like on Google Maps. Zoom in, and you can see, not just individual stations (tap on them for a schedule), but the trains themselves cruising the tracks in real time. And those trains send an important, almost subliminal message to anyone who studies the map.

“If you look at the map and it’s static, you might not realize the power of it, that it’s redrawing itself all the time. The moving trains are important to that,” says Felipe Memória, designer and founding partner at Work & Co. “Like it’s cool to see them moving! But also, it communicates in a very powerful way that the map is live.”

The Vignelli map (left) and the Hertz map (right). [Images: MTA, MTA/Wiki Commons]
Design scholars may notice something else. The map actually combines characteristics of the two most famous NYC subway maps in history. The first map is that by Massimo Vignelli, who simplified the snaking subway system into a clean diagram which traded geographic literality for graphical clarity. This elegant simplification turns the confounding subway into a logical system. But the main Vignelli map was scorned by New Yorkers because it wasn’t an actual map, and it was quickly replaced (though a permutation actually lives on as the MTA’s Weekender diagram, which signals weekend services). Meanwhile, the primary map the MTA uses today was created by Unimark International and Michael Hertz Associates. It’s more geographically accurate, but it actually condenses information that was in the Vignelli map. For example, it combines individual train lines such as the C, D, and E lines into singular trunks. (See below for an exclusive video on the making of the new mapping tool, by filmmaker Gary Hustwit.)

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“The Vignelli diagram is still in use on the Weekender because the purpose of the Weekender is to show change of service on the weekend,” says Memória. You can’t show that the A line is closed and the B line us running, unless you have the individual track fidelity of the Vignelli diagram.

[Image: Work & Co]
However, Work & Co designers couldn’t simply digitize the Vignelli diagram if they wanted to include the option to see your own location, and how close you were to the nearest station. “Today’s expectations is that when you open any map product you have a blue GPS dot telling you where you are,” says Memória. “It would be disappointing to make a map that doesn’t have that feature. But you couldn’t put that in the Vignelli diagram because it’s not a representation of geography.”

What Work & Co did, over the course of two years, was to create a new, digital map, that could combine the best of both worlds, including “the richness of the Hertz map and the clarity of the Vignelli diagram to have something that works for everybody,” says Memória.

[Image: Work & Co]
Zoomed in, the new map shows the individual train lines, just like Vignelli wanted. If any stretch of a subway line is down, it’s subtly grayed out, which Memória points out is a very natural cue for something being unavailable in digital apps. On top of this, Work & Co took some liberties. Namely, Vignelli used circle to indicate stations. But in the case that a train is running one direction only, that circle is change to a triangle, which points the way. It’s just the sort of brilliant tweak that Vignelli couldn’t have used in the static print era of maps.

[Image: Work & Co]
As you zoom out, you’ll see that the entire subway system maps to the geography of New York, and the individual train lines simplify themselves into clean trunks. That’s the Hertz influence. Work & Co added some more features, though, including airports, tunnels, and station entrances and exits, which you won’t see on printed maps. They also kept Hertz’s more organic curves, which actually appear dynamically as you zoom out, almost as if you’re toggling between Vignelli and Hertz’s sensibilities.

“This map miraculously resolves the opposing design philosophies of Massimo Vignelli & Michael Hertz,” wrote graphic designer Michael Bierut upon seeing the new map, “in a way that I suspect would please both of them.”

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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