Maps

Remembering the Designer Who Changed the Way We Think About Transit Maps

Massimo Vignelli, who died Tuesday at the age of 83, brought simplicity to American graphic design.

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Vignelli Associates

Whether it be an airline logo, a National Parks brochure, a shopping bag, or a subway map, there's a good chance you've come across something designed or influenced by Massimo VignelliThe man who helped bring minimalism to American graphic design died Tuesday at the age of 83. 

An architecture enthusiast his whole life, Vignelli, who was born in Milan, brought his aesthetic sensibilities, heavily influenced by men like Mies van der Rohe, to New York City in 1966. His impact on this country's design culture was almost immediate and, in some cases, endures to this day. 

Those brown shopping bags from Bloomingdales? Vignelli. The American Airlines logo that changed only last year? Vignelli. The 1970s New York City subway map every designer seems to pine for today? Of course, Vignelli. 

Vignelli explains his 1972 MTA map for the documentary Helvetica (2007).

In the case of the 1972 MTA map, the design was quickly rejected by many of the city's everyday commuters and replaced with a more literal interpretation of the system's layout in 1979.

Vignelli, in the 2007 documentary, Helvetica, blamed the map's demise on the world's verbally oriented population; a collection of people thrown off by his abstract approach to New York's geography.

Never short on confidence, the designer admitted in the clip that he might have made a mistake—not being abstract enough. Perhaps, he thought out loud, having each borough's name and outline on the map threw off riders who expected a literal interpretation of the city. Removing them would make it even better, something more like London's iconic Underground diagram.

Vignelli did experience a redemption of sorts after the documentary aired. In 2008, he designed a revised version of the map for Men's Vogue. Three years later, the MTA had Vignelli and his firm design Weekender, an interactive map that shows the subway system's service changes due to scheduled maintenance and construction. 

And earlier this year, Super Bowl attendees in East Rutherford were able to navigate their way between Manhattan and New Jersey with a Vignelli Associates-designed map. Not only did it closely resemble the 2008 revision, but it provided the closest thing the New York City area has gotten to having an all-in-one rapid transit map.

Obsessed with simplicity, Vignelli's sense of design will always make sense in the world of transit. Few stand much to gain or lose when an airline changes its logo, but we'll never stop needing to know how to get from point A to point B. Vignelli knew, better than most, how to help.

 

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