Lost And Found

There’s something about getting lost. The circumstances have to be quite precise, such as a wrong turn fueled by curiosity, or some kind of semi-romantic weather for wandering. Time slips off the radar, crowds dissipate, and happenstance takes center stage. The architecture, the streets, the city all come alive. And the serendipitous traveller, once safely at their destination, is pleased with their newfound openness and street savoir-faire.

There are times and places to indulge in misdirection. Navigating the New York City Subway is not one of them.

On an average weekday, 5.7 million people ride the 21 interconnected routes to any of the 469 stations that make up the sub-earth labyrinth of the NYC Subway. They do this with efficiency and ease, thanks to the vision of acclaimed Italian graphic designer Massimo Vignelli, who overhauled the NYCTA (New York City Transit Authority) wayfinding system with business partner Bob Noorda in the 1960s.

This massive project landed on the desks of Unimark International (the duo’s design firm) in 1965, but it took them seven years of monitoring commuter behavior before debuting the clean information designs, which were initially met with complaints and confusion when they were introduced in 1972.

The uniform, multicolored stripes of the map — or diagram, as Vignelli preferred — ran up, down and across instead of accurately representing the mass of interwoven railway lines that he referred to as spaghetti. It removed all topographic characteristics from the above-ground boroughs too, reducing cityscapes and landmarks to geometric slices of grey and beige. This was particularly confounding to tourists searching for Central Park’s southern end, since its northern tip was a 51-block walk away, but looked to be a much shorter distance on the diagram.

“Change is often slow and hard to digest, even in the city that never sleeps”

In a 2006 interview with The New York Times, Vignelli addressed the counterintuitive clash of colors and shapes. “Of course, I know the park is green and not grey. Who cares? You want to go from Point A to Point B, period.”

Perhaps the post-1972 riders who navigated the spaghetti tangle had forgotten what preceded Vignelli and Noorda’s bare, abstract approach. After all, change is often slow and hard to digest, even in the city that never sleeps.

Some 30 years earlier, Frank Pick and Harry Beck’s contemporary overhaul of the London Underground debuted to UK commuters. It was a simplified style that influenced Vignelli but had not yet made it across the pond. The tube map was inspired by electrical circuit diagrams, snubbing geographical accuracy by expanding the central London area for improved detail and easier navigation.

While London commuters and tourists were adjusting to color coded lines and 45-degree diagonals, New York residents and visitors were being bombarded with a shouting jungle of conflicting signage and directional confusion. The NYCTA recognized the overwhelming need for a modern overhaul of a system (or lack thereof) that was void of consistency, hierarchy and logic. At the urging of Mildred Constantine — associate curator of the Museum of Modern Art’s design and architecture department — they hired Unimark. It would be the defining project of Vignelli and Noorda’s careers, and a topic of lifelong scrutiny and discussion.

Their solution included signage of black text on a white background at each station front, which has since been reversed, accompanied by colored dots to signify line access. Design connoisseurs loved the diagram despite the public protest. It took some time for it to reach icon status, however, and it should be noted that the 1972 diagram was one of four designs that Vignelli had proposed — all four of which were designed to complement one another at each individual station. However, only the 1972 diagram was adopted, and even then it was not subject to consumer feedback before being unveiled to the masses.

In 1979, following criticism of Vignelli’s “abstract” diagram, a series of redesigns and consumer research, the 1972 diagram was replaced with a more geographic version designed by Michael Hertz Associates. And in the 1980s, the typeface Akzidenz-Grotesk (commonly known as Standard) that ruled Unimark’s concept was slowly replaced with the ever-worthy Helvetica until the latter was made the official typeface in 1989.

In 2011, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (formerly the NYCTA) invited Vignelli to riff off his original 1972 design. The project was a new version for its Weekender website and app, which alerts passengers to changes in subway service.

Vignelli’s 1970 New York City Transit Authority Graphic Standards Manual was reissued in 2014, and well-received. The oversized tome is the definitive guide to the subway system and includes color-coded indexes, copy editing standards, spacing rules, and most importantly, a pre-measured typographical symbol layout for each and every letter of the alphabet, complete with tracking notes.

The manual also includes a specific and comprehensive eight-level schematic for placing signage throughout stations, designed to maximize rider understanding. This was the result of those seven years spent by Vignelli and Noorda quietly observing passengers station by station. Their intent was pure: craft a system that would transcend language barriers and dismiss biased ties to city monuments.

Throughout the years Vignelli would come to be known for many more iconic designs, including the American Airlines, Bloomingdale’s, IBM and Knoll identities. However, the NYC Subway branding has drawn long-lasting attention from UX, information and graphic designers, along with city-loving cartographers.

“Their intent was pure: craft a system that would transcend language barriers”

In person, the designs are so unassuming and have become as much a part of New York’s essence as the neon glow of Katz’s Delicatessen. The wayfinding details are seamlessly woven into the fabric of the city. Many a commuter or tourist will pop in and out of stations without stopping to consider the legacy behind the lines. As type designer Erik Spiekermann said, “You only notice design when it’s bad.”

Although he passed away in 2014 at the age of 83, Vignelli can rest easy knowing his designs were a mixed bag of success and incurable intrigue. The system he created for the city he came to call home exists today much like he did — as a significant and integral piece in the brazen, consuming, romantic metropolis that is New York City.

*As seen in the complimentary print edition of The Journal by Herschel Supply. Issue 09 (Fall/Winter 2017) is available at global stockists, and as a surprise gift with select US, Canada, EU and UK online orders for a limited time.

Written by Kim Budziak

Illustrations by Donna Vo

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