Vignelli’s Vision from Above

Massimo Vignelli was one of the most beloved, respected figures in 20th century design. He brought his design ethos to any field he pleased, including interior design, houseware, and corporate logos. No matter the subject, he prized clarity and elegance above all.

In 1972, Vignelli attempted to bring his design priniciples to the New York Subway map. His design solution was controversial in 1972, but it is still unquestionably forward-thinking design in 2015.

Designing the New York Subway map is a formidable task. For many New Yorkers, the Subway is an integral part of city life. And in such a complex city, it is imperative to simplify the journey from point A to B.

Vignelli’s Subway map was preceded and followed by consistently literalist interpretations.

The 1958 Map


The 1979 Map


The 2008 Map


Vignelli criticized each of these maps for their lack of simplicity and straightforwardness. He took issue with fragmentation of lines in the 1958 map, the arguably superfluous realism of the 1979 map, and the use of information balloons in the 2008 map. His critique raises the enduring question of communicative design: when is it “enough”?

Vignelli transformed the Subway map, providing an unorthodox and innovative design solution. His map truly exemplified one of his own quotes: “The correct shape is the shape of the object’s meaning.”

Vignelli’s 1972 Map


Vignelli’s striking map employs an eye-catching aesthetic, but it is most notable for defying conventional paradigms about space and functionality.

In repsonse to the 1979 map, Vignelli said, “And look at here [pointing to curved path of train line at lower Manhattan]. Who cares if the subway has to make a [turn] like that? I’m going, we’re all going, from Point A to Point B. How we get there is the conductor’s problem, not mine.” Vignelli found it unnecessary and ultimately distracting to focus so much on the environment around the Subway. He took the liberty of distilled his map’s information to the destination.

Vignelli’s philosophy was fairly polarizing. On one hand, his map received derision from much of the general public; on the other hand, it has been praised ever since by designers. His map design was even exhibited by Museum of Modern Art in 2004.

Studying Vignelli’s map is a valuable exercise for any student of communication design. Vignelli’s insight and indirectly challenged thousands of designers to reconsider what is necessary. His communication was simultaneously direct, minimalist, and a striking, beautiful piece of art. Not bad for a Subway map.

By the way, in 2012, by request of the MTA, Vignelli’s design resumed directing the public in the form of the Weekender, a digital application.




Fast Company Design


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