R.I.P. Massimo Vignelli, the Graphic Design Legend Behind the Cult-Classic 1972 Subway Map

By
Photo: MTA

Self-described "information architect" Massimo Vignelli died today at the age of 83, the New York Times reports. In addition to designing visuals for classic brands like Ford, IBM, and American Airlines — plus '70s shopping bags for Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Barneys — Vignelli is responsible for the NYC subway signs and an abandoned, eventually much-celebrated version of the MTA map.

But when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority released his new subway map in 1972, many riders found it the opposite of understandable. Rather than represent the subway lines as the spaghetti tangle they are, it showed them as uniform stripes of various colors running straight up and down or across at 45-degree angles — not unlike an engineer’s schematic diagram of the movement of electricity.

What upset many riders even more was that the map ignored much of the city above ground. It reduced the boroughs to white geometric shapes and eliminated many streets, parks and other familiar features of the cityscape.

It was replaced by 1979. "Look what these barbarians have done," Vignelli said of the map in 2006. "All these curves, all this whispering-in-the-ear of balloons. It's half-naturalist and half-abstract. It's a mongrel."

Examining the 2008 update, he added, "We belong to a culture of balloons. [The designers] grow up with comic books, and this is what happens. There's balloons all over the place. It's ridiculous."

But of his 1972 creation — a "diagram," he called it, because maps are for geography — Vignelli said, "Of course I know Central Park is rectangular and not square. Of course I know the park is green, and not gray. Who cares? You want to go from Point A to Point B, period. The only thing you are interested in is the spaghetti." (New York published a how-to guide for Vignelli's version in 2007.)

He was vindicated somewhat in 2011, when the MTA again turned to Vignelli to create the Weekender. "No more printed map," he told WNYC, praising the interactive digital diagram. "Printed maps are a trap for tourists."