The Best MTA Map?

Posted inDesign Inspiration
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Archie Archambault is a cartographic mad scientist.

While living in Oregon, he was prone to getting lost. So, as the legend goes, “The best way to get un-lost is to draw a map, and when he drew a circular map of Portland, Archie’s Press was born.”

In the years since, Archambault has brought visual life to numerous cities and states. Comprehensive human anatomy, from the eye to the ear to, yes, all parts below. Planets. The Zodiac. Beer. Cheese. Tacos.

No matter what he designs, he distills, making his subject matter not only digestible, but damn beautiful. He letterpresses his work with a hearty 600 pounds of pressure, leaving an impression that will indeed last a lifetime.

Why are we riffing on Archambault today?

As we reported last week, the MTA has released a fantastic live Subway map. There are die-hard adherents to the map’s various static incarnations over the years—but to be honest, while we love us some Vignelli and Hertz, it’s Archambault’s that we’d hang on our wall.

Here’s a bit about his thinking behind the design:

So there’s a lot to unpack here.

My main thesis was to explain the Big Picture of the subway system, describing the general arrangement of the system. This is probably more useful/endearing to a person who has used the subway a lot. I conceived this about six months after moving to the city, when I still had the eyes of a newcomer, but the knowledge of a regular passenger. I’ve been working on it obsessively for hours at a time, for about four years.

The Strategy: Strip away individual stops and keep everything referring to two things:

1. The terminus/direction of each train line.Often, the directions for each train are referred to by their last stops. For instance, BDFN & Q trains all have Coney Island/Stillwell Ave as one of their directions. If you don't know what that means, it helps to see, highlighted, CONEY ISLAND/STILLWELL AVE. You’ll see this a lot on the signs in the subway, so it’s nice to know what it refers to. It means “South Brooklyn direction.”

2. The street that each line follows. There’s a disconnect between the subway, underground, and “reality” aboveground. We exist to live aboveground, not underground, so I felt having a little knowledge about where the underground paths take you can give you some more agency over your experience in the subway. Some lines do not follow a logical street so I didn’t name them.

There are a few major junctions that spit train lines around in wild directions. Downtown, comprised of several intricate junctions, looks like a knot diagram with all the lines slithering around one another. Adding to the vortex is the jump from Downtown Manhattan to Downtown Brooklyn, where the trains are swirled around again. It’s pointless to memorize this on a map. The one note I liked to add was “where” in Downtown Manhattan the trains end up. There’s a higher and lower part of downtown around the Financial District and the other around Canal Street.

It’s always alarming when visitors say, “I'm taking the Yellow Line to (someplace).” Oof, you’re in trouble. The colors of the subways do not indicate much, except for [a] portion of track between 14th St. and 42nd St. where they follow along the same street. Then they explode in dozens of different directions, disconnecting and reconnecting illogically. I found this to be sort of distracting so I removed the colors on the most current version.

Finally, Archambault notes that the map remains “very unfinished”—and encourages you to email your suggestions to him.

In the meantime, you can order a digital print of the latest version here.