Up With the Underground
Roger van den Bergh of Onoma LLC, an identity and media design firm in New York City, gave himself a painstaking challenge: Design a new MTA Subway map for the city. He released the new design at the beginning of 2017. The brochure below contains the following text:
“After countless delays and at a cost of $4.45 billion, New York City’s Second Avenue Subway (the new Q extension) is finally scheduled to open on December 31. In honor of this historic achievement, Roger van den Bergh has designed a new, simpler New York City Subway map.* Station-dominant rather than line-dominant, this map is intended to be clean and clear, and help any passenger easily plan a trip throughout the five boroughs.
“But first, a little history to put everything in context. Originally, there were three separate New York City subway systems: the IND, the BMT and the IRT (maps 1– 3). By 1967 they were fully merged into one connected plan (map 4). In 1972 Unimark International’s Massimo Vignelli designed a sleek, updated version that was an instant hit with designers, architects and people in the arts (map 5).
“Unfortunately, this map turned out to be controversial because subway riders had trouble understanding how to use it. In 1979, the MTA went back to the drawing board and launched a new geography-based map that still can be found in every subway car and station today (map 6). In an effort to continue to improve the map, van den Bergh’s new design (map 7) goes back to Harry Beck’s well-known 1931 concept for the London Underground (aka the Tube). However, while the London Tube map features 45-degree angles, this new map uses 60-degree angles. Looking at the aspect ratio (width versus height), the latter choice makes the five boroughs fit inside the map in a more streamlined way.
“Most importantly, in this new station-dominant map you see the dots rather than the colored lines first. Each station—open circles for express stops, solid circles for local—clearly shows which subway lines are available to the passenger. Services like wheelchair accessibility are also plainly identified at each station, making it much easier for people with disabilities to navigate the system. While the iconic subway line brands and their related colors remain, the station is the first and last touchpoint for anyone consulting this map, making it the most straphanger-friendly yet.”
I recently asked van den Bergh to show and tell more of the process.
The New York City subway map has been a complex design problem. How did you determine the direction that you chose to follow? [The] main objective was to make it easy for the subway rider to navigate one of the the most difficult-to-understand mass transit networks in the world. With emphasis on subway stations rather than subway lines, hence the station-dominance character.
Unimark/Vignelli’s 1972 version. Courtesy of New York Transit Museum. © Metropolitan Transportation Authority, used with permission.
Did you feel the ghost of Vignelli in your process? I wanted to stay away from the Vignelli map approach: While extremely attractive, it lacked functionality. Moreover, the design process was driven by down-to-earth practicality, serving the user, not the esthete.
What makes your map most efficient for the end user? The clarity, the elimination of non-pertinent visual components, as well as the simple visual appearance.
How did the assignment come your way? And what were the parameters you were given? Unfortunately, this was not an MTA assignment; I took the initiative to do this. I spent about 12 months, on and off between my revenue identity projects. Therefore, I wrote the criteria myself: ––to create a map which is easy to navigate ––to easily distinguish the different subway lines and stations ––to clearly identify the services offered by each station ––to limit other information and focus on subway services only ––to retain the line brands and related color equity ––to create a station-dominant look: The station is the first and last touchpoint of each new and regular customer.
Updated Unimark/Vignelli map by Waterhouse/Cifuentes.
Current MTA map.
Roger van den Bergh map.
Would you say you’ve done the quintessential map, or out of your research are there other options for the future? I would say that this could be a solution for a 2017 extremely complex New York City mass transit challenge. Perhaps five years from now, there will be more challenges, more variables to be dealing with, more complex logistics. These will then require different design approaches. But a highly analytical approach should yield a solution which could last for at least 10 years. These design-solution-generation time intervals become shorter and shorter, caused by the overall technology offered to the information-consumer (i.e., subway rider) and thus the designer …
The purpose of this MTA New York City Transit subway map design was also to start a long-overdue discussion between designers about “how our profession works: making things attractive and comfortable, or really using the medium of design to address communication and information challenges.”
What has been the reaction? Perhaps a little too early, as it was only published last week, but so far, there have been quite positive critiques.
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