There's no transit map in North America as polarizing as the one Massimo Vignelli made more than 40 years ago for New York City. MTA riders say it was confusing. Designers say it may have just been too beautiful for this world.
His latest concept is filled with many of the familiar elements found in Vignelli's map; geometric-looking boroughs, tightly kerned Helvetica, and clusters of straight lines that rub up against each other. But it also represents the subway routes and surrounding landscape more accurately. "No diagram map comes close to this one in terms of geographical reality," Roberts tells us.
It's doubtful the opinionated Vignelli would necessarily approve. Years after his maps were pulled down from New York's subway cars in 1979, Vignelli, who died earlier this year, still found his creation to be near perfect. A 2008 compromise (used by the MTA to provide service update info online) by his firm added Staten Island and made the water blue instead of brown. Roberts was unimpressed with those changes. "The attempts to make it more geographical kill the power and simplicity of the original 1972 version and over compensate," he says. "Lower Manhattan is just as wrong as before, but now with extra bends."
His response does break a bit with Vignelli's vision, though, displaying water as blue—even bluer than that compromise map, actually—and greenspace as green. He also addresses the biggest hangup among those who disliked the '72 design: Station locations and line trajectories that didn't match up with reality.
Roberts used city street maps to figure out how to accurately place stations while still maintaining legibility. As for the subway paths, Roberts believes that 45-degree angles (as seen in Vignelli's 1972 and 2008 maps) don't quite work for New York because the broad line trajectories are usually steeper, or shallower. Instead, his map uses 30- and 60-degree angles.
Roberts's solutions aside, the fact that map lovers and transit fans are still so passionate about a 40-year old design that only saw a few years of use speaks to the lasting power of Vignelli's approach. Joel Street, trying to figure out the "Vignelli conundrum" in the most recent issue of The American Reader thinks that, as bothersome as its abstraction is to so many, the average straphanger may be closer to accepting it than before. "As we interact with increasingly abstract technology, with its swipes and pinches, cuts and pastes," writes Street, "the colorful, angular world of the Vignelli map will start to seem less strange, and new maps of every sort may mirror its aesthetic merits without stirring discomfort in newer generations."
Channeling his inner Vignelli, Roberts feels quite satisfied with the final product. "If a user can cope with the 4/5/6 zig-zag at Park Avenue/Lexington Avenue being straightened out," says the University of Essex lecturer, "there should be nothing to object to here, anywhere."