Transit aficionados have long been enamored with the various redesigns, reformats and debates around improving our subway maps—whether they’re geographically-oriented, smooth, colorful, or historical artifacts. But real MTA heads know that one of the most pivotal moments in subway map history happened in the Great Hall of Cooper Union in April 1978, when acclaimed designer Massimo Vignelli debated the future of the map with cartographer John Tauranac.
The debate, which was both an intellectual exercise and attempt to get feedback from the public about map designs, centered around the tension between information and communication. Ultimately, Vignelli’s map was pushed aside and the Tauranac map, variations of which are still used to this day, was adopted.
That seminal debate is now the subject of a new book—The New York Subway Map Debate—after design historian and Helvetica filmmaker Gary Hustwit discovered that archivists at the Cooper Union had recently found an audio recording of the debate in the basement. Aside from a couple quotes in The New Yorker and in the NY Times at the time of the debate, nobody really knew what had been said that evening until this audio was recently unearthed.
He sought to tell the story of that night via a transcript of the debate and discussions that followed, as well as never-before-seen photographs taken by Stan Ries.
“It’s interesting for people who are into New York City and the city’s history, because so much of the city’s culture and daily life is about transit and about the subway system,” Hustwit told Gothamist. “So while it seems just like a bunch of people arguing over a map, I think it has a deeper connection to people who live in the city.”
It’s also of particular interest to designers of all kinds: “This is the same conversation that designers have every day, anyone designing a website, it’s not just about print or about maps,” he added. “It’s this idea of a hierarchy of information and how you can present information to the public in a really efficient way. It’s this same idea of form versus content and minimalism versus maximalism.”
In press materials, the debate has been described as “highly contentious,” a description Tauranac, who still lives on the Upper West Side, doesn’t quite agree with.
“That’s a word that I would never have used to describe it, actually, I never thought it was contentious,” Tauranac told Gothamist. “Vignelli felt that he was above it all, compared with me who had no graphic training at all to speak of.”
But there were some fundamental differences in how each man approached the task of depicting the city’s transit system. Vignelli, who died in 2014, said at one point during the debate that Tauranac’s map, created in collaboration with Michael Hertz Associates, made him want to “puke.”
“One of the things that galled me about Vignelli was his archness, and the fact that he was unwilling to play tour guide, as he so proudly said and was picked up in the story,” said Tauranac. “I had already been a licensed NYC guide since at least 1972. What is the role of mapmaker if not guide?”
Vignelli had helped oversee the design of a unified signage system for the subways in the late ’60s, which led to the creation of his modernist, non-geographic 1972 map, which included rounded, rainbow-tinged diagrams. Vignelli’s aesthetic version was an immediate hit among designers, but was described as “confusing” by many locals.
“It was not intended to perfectly represent the geography of New York City,” Hustwit explained. “It was more a diagram of where the stops were. So for instance, they changed the locations of certain stations so that they would better fit the grid, and the distances between stations in between areas was not to scale. This confused people who got off in one area of town and discovered they were several blocks away from where they thought.”
Hustwit said that the map wasn’t really intended to be used as a street map for the city. When the MTA commissioned Vignelli to make it, it was supposed to be accompanied by two other maps—a geographical street map and a neighborhood map of that station’s area. Because of budgetary reasons, those other maps were never printed. (Clearly, this was an idea which still resonates within the MTA: just last year, they unveiled six complimentary subway maps at a recently-reopened station, including a variation on the Vignelli map.)
Because of this commuter confusion, a movement soon started to get the map changed, which led to the formation of an MTA map committee. Tauranac, who has written over half a dozen books on the city’s social- and architectural history, led a team of 12 people in trying to redesign the map to make it more coherent to straphangers.
“I was an English lit major and a history minor, and I did my graduate work in American urban history,” he said. “But I’ve always been charged with explaining the city to people.”
He wanted to write a story about how to navigate the undercover passageways in Manhattan, which led to him publishing a series of “Undercover Maps” in New York Magazine in the early ’70s. He also wrote guidebooks for the Culture Bus Loops run by the MTA, and was eventually hired to write Seeing New York: The Official MTA Travel Guide in 1976, which included a truly geographical subway map.
So heading into the debate, Tauranac and the MTA committee were hoping to get feedback on their new information-rich designs—and in particular, to try to push the MTA to adopt a new color coding system, which the authority had been reluctant to agree to.
Hustwit says that despite his rhetorical bluster, Vignelli was at a disadvantage from the start.
“Tauranac’s side had really prepared: they had done studies, they had done surveys, they had a psychologist there, all kinds of other backup evidence and polls about which map people like better and all kinds of supporting information,” Hustwit said.
Vignelli already felt shortchanged by the MTA for not originally printing the other maps alongside his diagram, and he had a particularly disregard for non-designers trying to tell him how to make a good map.
“I don’t think Vignelli was really interested in playing the kind of political game of working the system of the city and the MTA,” Hustwit noted. “If you’ve seen any of the photographs from the night, you can just see in his body language, he is pretty disgusted that this is even happening. He just can’t believe anybody could not agree with his point of view.”
Tauranac, who was there as a representative of the MTA, felt he had to hold back his real feelings at the time (“I had to be diplomatic”), but he is able to be more direct now.
Vignelli’s map “was convoluted, and only dealt with the subway, it didn’t put anything in perspective,” Tauranac told Gothamist. “That’s the whole point of the map, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a map to get you not just from point A to B, but from B to C, and C to D. When you’re talking about a subway map, where you are is A, and B is the subway station, then we’ll get you to C, then we’ll get you to your ultimate destination, D.”
Reflecting on its relevance today, Hustwit says the debate speaks to “what seems like an eternal conflict between the philosophies of communication. How do you effectively communicate complex information?” Vignelli was all about a minimalist approach, while Tauranac was interested in providing as much information as possible so there would be no confusion for users.
“There are some people who think design is about creating order and structure and trying to tame the chaos of our world through graphic design,” Hustwit said. “And there is another side that thinks it’s about expressiveness and personality and giving communication some emotion, and those two sides seem like they’re always sort of butting up against each other.”
Despite the inroads he had made with the public during the debate—there was much positive feedback from questionnaires which were handed out to those in attendance—Tauranac felt his project was still, in his words, “dead in the water” without being able to have the trunk-based color coding of the different lines, which would help bring clarity as various lines diverged then came back together.
But a few months later, he met with Phyllis Cerf Wagner, head of the MTA Aesthetics Committee, who was able to intervene on his behalf with the MTA heads, secure the funds, and lock in the map, which was officially adopted by June 1979. As the Times enthusiastically declared at the time, “At Last, A Usable Subway Map.”
Remarkably, although it’s had some tweaks over the last 40+ years, the map we all use to traverse the subway remains at its core the same one Tauranac oversaw, which is something Tauranac takes pride in.
“I like to say that my tombstone should read, ‘He designed the subway map that works.'”