Please, stop making ‘alternative’ maps of the NYC Subway

Every month, it seems someone with perhaps too much time on his hands unveils a newer, “better” version of the diagram of the New York City subway. If you’ve got plans to make a serious bid of your own, I have a suggestion:


The latest entry comes from Serbian artist Jug Cerović, who first created a revised subway diagram for Paris, his current home. He liked it so much he decided to make eleven more based on self-designed principles. Here’s the one for our city.

Jug Cerovic NYC Subway map

It’s colorful and legible, sure. The problem here is Cerović, like many other mapmakers before him, is trying to forge a compromise between the two competing elements in diagram-design: geography and network. As Massimo Vignelli has pointed out, geography is useless when you’re in the subway; all that matters is getting to where you need to exit the system.

Right off the bat, there are several things I don’t like in Cerović’s design. He uses different colors for various lines, but unlike the Vignelli map, he merges some of them, it seems, based on their local/express status in midtown. (Look at the C/E, 4/5, and B/D for examples.) Consistency is key; otherwise, why bother?

Since he’s apparently not angling for a pure diagram, let’s examine the geography. For starters, Coney Island is due east of the Financial District, and the A/B/C/D isn’t anywhere near Central Park, despite running right along its western edge.

As Bill Cosby said, ”I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

The simplicity of the Vignelli map: "No dot, no stop."

The simplicity of the Vignelli map: “No dot, no stop.”

Most of the media responses have baffled me. Wrote The Atlantic Cities, which I expect to have a better analysis: “Some might argue that uniformity [of his 12 designs] wipes out the cities’ unique identities. But Cerović says he tried to make each map very different through overarching symbolic shapes.”

It’s a freakin’ subway map. Who cares about “unique identities”? Just show me how to get where I need to go.

The right play – and I understand Paris does this – is to have two complementary diagrams. One shows the network in an easy-to-read, spaced-out format, like Vignelli’s does, with token attention to landmarks; the other is geographically accurate, for those who need to find the appropriate stop. The system’s local maps are already filling this role to large extent, but a system-wide design might have an index for popular attractions (e.g., “Empire State Building: BDFM or NQR to 34 St/Herald Sq”).

If you’re unconvinced, just take a look at what the master himself has to say about several other designs. And please, unless you’re able to make a network diagram better than Vignelli’s, or something totally fun and unserious, put away your virtual square rule and get outside.

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