Subway map design and who it’s for

Recently I saw a family of tourists on the subway, looking a little worn from walking through a strange (and humid) city. The father didn’t want to admit it, but he had no idea how long the train ride would be. He knew where he was going; at the moment the only thing he needed was the number of stops between here and there.

It was the perfect time to reflect on the new NYC Subway map. They’ve started installing it in trains and stations, and there is a rare opportunity to compare the old with the new in the map’s functional environment.

What changed
To the designers’ credit, distractions have been toned down. Lists have been trimmed, trainless Staten Island has shrunk, and distracting green parks have been muted (an improvement despite a browning effect). Manhattan is also wider to provide more breathing room.

The streamlining dilemma
Designers are quick to celebrate minimalist subway maps like Massimo Vignelli’s. MTA decision makers likely had a different approach, each one bringing a different argument to the table.

That tug-of-war seems evident here, and while the map has evolved in the right direction, the end product still attempts to satisfy many different uses simultaneously.

It leaves me to wonder if a stronger vision could have simplified the map even more, or even made multiple versions of the map for different environments.

In the end, of course, the designers and the department heads don’t matter. It’s all about that tourist, and getting him the info he needs at the right moment. For him, the MTA has at least taken steps in the right direction.


A detailed comparison from the NYT
Who is Harry Beck
Flickr photo link


About mathisworks
I'm Mike Mathis, a visual communication designer. Mathisworks Discussion is my forum to explore corporate communication strategies, as they relate to design.

2 Responses to Subway map design and who it’s for

  1. visualingual says:

    I don’t know… In a city that is so incredibly pedestrian-friendly and which features so many different possible routes, on foot or by bus or train, I think it absolutely makes sense to show the scale, relative distances, and the above-ground landmarks and major streets.

    By contrast, the Boston MBTA map is a route diagram that grossly distorts the city itself. Sure, it’s reductive and clear as far as the transit system itself is concerned, but it doesn’t take into account the way that people actually traverse that fairly compact urban area.

    I’m a sucker for simplicity, too, but I think some of that “clutter” makes for a better tool, and not just for tourists. I also think that this new, slightly simplified map is an improvement over the last “everything but the kitchen sink” one.

  2. mathisworks says:

    Hi Visual. Your insights give pause… I can’t help but agree that a good map must show some semblance of the above-ground world. Though the NYC map is no match to the real thing either: that north-south walk through Manhattan is longer than it looks! Suppose it’s all a matter of degrees?

    After I posted this, someone pointed me to the following article. Here, a designer named Eddie Jabbour covers the problem with love and hard work, tackling the clutter question, the distortion question and plenty others.

    A great read if you have time:

    And thanks for chiming in!

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