When New York’s independently managed subway lines came under centralized governmental control in 1953, it became clear that the perplexing experience of navigating the vast network needed to be addressed. This subway map was an attempt to simplify an earlier three-color
version that was geographically accurate but visually confusing. It emerged from a more general, system-wide graphic identity that the city’s Transit Authority had invited Vignelli and his team at the New York office of the design firm Unimark International to create in 1967, on the recommendation of MoMA curator Mildred Constantine. The resulting Graphics Standards Manual, released in 1970, called for station signage to be rendered in a highly legible sans-serif typeface using a simple palette of bright colors and black and white.
For the map, Vignelli, with Charysyn as lead designer, eliminated winding train lines and topographical references in favor of a rectilinear format with forty-five- and ninety-degree angles. Each stop on the brightly colored lines is indicated by a simple dot, with pale, neutral colors and white showing waterways and landmasses in the background. Initially panned by New Yorkers—
it was replaced in 1979 by a more familiar topographic approach—today the map is widely admired. It resurfaced in 2012 in an app for tracking maintenance work, and in more recent years it has been used in printed service-change announcements.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)