Vignelli Transit Maps by Peter B. Lloyd and Mark Ovenden is the story of Massimo Vignelli’s famous (infamous?) 1972 map of the New York City subway system. The map was controversial because it ignored geographic and station location and stuck to a strict 45- and 90-degree grid, and was eventually replaced by the MTA in 1979. You can see a high-resolution image of the map here.

The book covers the story and people behind the map, as well as the importance of transit maps and how they are designed. There are a number of interesting details on map features such typeface, colour, and cost as well as lovely images of the maps. Where the book does fall a bit short is on answering the question of whether the map was better or worse than those that came before and after it. Even though the book is rather large, some of the maps are illegible because they require even larger formats.

I think Vignelli Transit Maps is a nice companion to the 2007 work Transit Maps of the World. The former will give you some of the tools to help understand that thoughts that went into some of the later. I picked up my copy of Vignelli second-hand for much less than the Amazon price, but I would say it’s worth it if subway maps are an interest of yours.

13 Replies to “Book Review: Vignelli Transit Maps”

  1. Does anybody remember the maps Portland used to have that divided the city into districts, each represented by symbols like a snowflake, or I think a leaf, or an animal?

    Aside from the drawing talent to let the reader distinguish between leaves and animals- oak or maple?- chipmunk or wolf?- wonder if this would be of any help to Seattle?

    And for the one’s along LINK corridors, just use LINK’s station symbols?

    My first and best introduction to schematic maps was in Montreal. First visit to the city, and no French whatever, but was still able to comprehend my route instantly.

    Based on that, I think success depends on a designer who has enough personal experience riding the system to imagine what it would be like to use map and system from the point of view of a stranger who spoke another language.

    Mark Dublin

    1. You should take a gander of Portland’s horrid Streetcar map. It was the one time I couldn’t figure where I was going. I posted a photo of the map on the STB flickr page.

  2. I grew up using that map and I always loved it. The mapping of interchanges with aligned dots was fantastic for figuring out where to make a transfer between lines.

    At the same time, I understand that the percent of people who think with any level of abstraction is incredibly low and most want concrete illustrations of exactly how thinks are supposed to look and be. If say, I had no idea where a station was, I could not figure it out using the ’72 map.

    These days we have Google Maps and tablets that do all the “figuring” for us, both abstract and concrete thinkers alike.

    1. Yes, there are two uses for a transit map, to understand the system and where you are on it, and to understand where a particular stop is in relation to where you are actually going. The Vignelli map (and those that use orthogonal axes) are optimized for the former and do a better job of expressing transfer opportunities. The more literal maps are optimized for expressing where the route is in relation to the landscape around it. It’s a balancing act for the designer and reader alike.

      1. Stations need to have at least two maps. A schematic map of the system, and a neighborhood map to help the rider orient to get out of the station at the proper exit.

      2. Agreed, or labelled entrances and exits, like Beijing’s subway. If you know you popped into the tunnel at portal C, you can get back out at portal C; if you walk by portal D every day and you know it’s near your bus transfer, you can look for portal D next time you get off at that stop and need to make the bus transfer.

        [which is to say that I would rather have entrance/exists labeled with letters, inside and out, than labels like “3rd Ave, Century Square” on only the inside.]

    2. These days we have Google Maps and tablets that do all the “figuring” for us, both abstract and concrete thinkers alike.

      Not necessarily. I’ve heard a lot of people complain about the downtown Link stations, and until cell service is completed you can’t use Google maps that well there. (I’ve been able to get my phone to remember some map segments but you have to be a bit careful how to do this.)

      1. I took Sounder in Sunday for the Mariners game and was doing some checks with my new phone which has LTE.

        I used to try using my Clear USB modem on that route, but there were so many dead zones especially Tukwila to just about Seattle that I gave up. And the in-car Wifi is atrocious.

        The LTE started off ok in Kent Station, about 7Mpbs…but as the train got going it quickly degraded to 2Mbps and then, just as with Clear, the 4G signal dropped and went to low grade 3G. Once in Seattle it got a lot better (but that’s the same as Clear).

        I have Virgin Mobile which runs on the Sprint network. Don’t know about other carriers but that’s pretty bad for a major route to have such terrible data communications…at least with my vendors.

  3. For those who are unaware, KickMap is a heavily-Vignelli-inspired redrawing of the NYC subway map, available as an iPhone app. (And apparently there are now apps for DC and London too!)

  4. Sound Transit is circulating a similar map through their Sound Waves program asking for feedback on the system map for ST2. It has a single vertical line for Lynnwood – Angle Lake and a U-shaped line for Lynnwood – Overlake. One of my criticisms was that it was completely divorced from local geography. You couldn’t plan a trip with it unless you already knew the names of the stations you wanted to travel between. Since we’ll only have 2 lines that overlap completely for about half their length it wasn’t a particularly useful map.

    1. Is this the one that has Rainier Beach station as the only station in the bottom of the U? I commented on this: people might confuse it with Mercer Island, especially people who don’t read and haven’t been told about the little icons. The vertical bars of the U could reasonably expected to be contiguous land, the bottom, I-90, and the stop in the middle, Mercer Island.

      Imagine all the little old ladies, speaking very limited English, counting stops, and stopping their count because they thought they had gotten off by one and accidentally not gotten off.

    2. The map ST asked for feedback on was based on the color-coded BART map, which I have always found very easy to use. My seven-year-old grandson helped me complete the ST feedback form, he could easily figure out at which stations he should transfer based on the color-coded lines.

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