47 Years And Still A Design Icon

by Don Friedman on January 11, 2017


A while ago I mentioned the Vignelli map as a beautiful but hard to use version of a NYC subway map. What everyone who has ever seen that map remembers is that the geometry of the entire city is reduced to 90- ad 45-degree angles, but there are other aspects worth mentioning.

Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda designed an entire graphic system for the subways, much of which is still in use: the use of Helvetica for all type, line designations consisting of simple letters or numbers in colored circles, the form and location of signs on the platforms and mezzanines. A few of their ideas were completely abandoned: lines designations are now grouped by the main trunks, so all of the Seventh Avenue trains (including the 3) are red and are shown as a single line on the map; locals and expresses are designed by different letters rather than letter combinations. Vignelli and Noorda had express trains called by single letters and locals by double letters, which is why natives over the age of forty sometimes still think of the R as the RR, or the C as the CC.

The manual that lays out their graphics is a masterpiece of the genre. The subway system is a combination of three systems – two private companies and the city-built lines – that prior to the manual had at least three different appearances for signage. With dozens of lines and 470-odd stations, the system is going to be confusing no matter what, but their graphics help unify the mess.

In case it’s not obvious why I’m writing about this topic, graphic design is design. The basic constraints that we deal with in our work – budget, clarity, efficiency, functionality – all apply, albeit in slightly different forms than in engineering. And good design is good design, regardless of the field.

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