A lesson in design from Massimo Vignelli

I had every intention of visiting Crown Heights last Wednesday evening. Seriously. I mean, I was already delinquent in going – I really don’t like violating the “weekly” part of the title – and the weather was beautiful. With a wedding coming up over the weekend, it was my last chance to get it in.

So I’m at work earlier that day when the following pops in my inbox:

Whoops. Somehow that hadn’t made its way into my calendar. As you might recall me mentioning at one point, Vignelli’s masterpiece hangs above my bed. Sorry, Crown Heights – I guess I’ll see you next week, Rosh Hashanah notwithstanding.

The New York Transit Museum was packed for “Mapping Vignelli!” The event was a panel discussion with Vignelli and two of his colleagues, moderated by Michael Bierut of Pentagram, a prominent design firm.

Vignelli, 81, was amusing in a cute-old-man sort of way, getting big laughs for his quick dismissals of other diagrams and for his frequent failure to hold the microphone to his face. As anyone who has seen the documentary Helvetica knows, he was the one who streamlined subway signage to use only that typeface. Pointing at some of the older signs hanging around the museum, he remarked that they were lettered by hand – by someone “from Transylvania, probably”.

One such sign at the Transit Museum.

The evening, as expected, was very informative. The first thing I learned is that Vignelli’s work is a “diagram”, not a map – maps show geography, and one of the ways Vignelli’s approach differed from its New York predecessors is that it didn’t bother with parks and points of interest and such. If you’re on a train, it’s not like you can get out in between stops.

His muse was the 1933 London diagram, a derivative of which is still used today. No built environment, just a series of diamonds and hashes to show you how stations and lines connect.

1933 London Tube diagram. The design has not changed much. (source)

There were two main problems with applying the London technique to New York. First, we have both local and express trains. Second, we have many more lines, and they criss-cross in strange ways. Even on today’s diagram, following the course of, say, the M is no easy feat for a beginner.

The solution to both was novel, and it came in a neat soundbite: “no dot, no stop”. He’d show every single line individually in a different color, and each line’s stops would be marked, with connections implied by clusters of dots.

The 1966 guide. Is this a subway diagram or a tourist map? (from nycsubway.org)

Because he didn’t care about incorporating geography, he did everything at 45- and 90-degree angles. His colleague Yoshi showed the secret behind its development: graph paper. Simple, yet elegant.

Here’s the result. It’s easy to see why it was sometimes known as the “spaghetti map”.

Vignelli’s diagram, published 1972. (from nycsubway.org)

Vignelli’s firm was approached by the MTA a few years ago to create a diagram for its online “Weekender” tool, which shows alterations to service. Keeping the general plan from 1972, Vignelli and his colleagues updated the lines and took their now more uniform colors.

While he showed some disdain for technology during the course of the talk (poking fun at the use of GPS and satellite views to make maps, for example), Vignelli appreciates a few features not available on paper. Service-changes can now be shown: a line not in use can be “ghosted”, while a stop with planned work can have its dot blink. You can also access a given stop’s local map, which adds back the built environment lacking in the diagram.

Service changes for the coming weekend. The B and the 5 are not running, and the 3, C, and F have work planned. (from The Weekender)

After the talk, there was an opportunity to buy a limited-edition print of the 2012 diagram in Vignelli format, signed by the master and his colleagues. You could think of the $500 as an investment; I considered this angle for a while but ultimately passed. I’ll regret this when I’m 50.

Vignelli signs an original 1972 pocket map, purchased on eBay for $80.

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2 Responses to A lesson in design from Massimo Vignelli

  1. John Shostrom says:


    Nice piece on an outstanding designer.

    Saw your great Boston Marathon time — great job!

    John Shostrom, BRRC

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