MASSIMO VIGNELLI: “If You Can Design One Think, You Can Design Everything”


Vignelli and his wife Leila founded Vignelli Associates in 1971, and they worked on corporate identity, package design and furniture. But his enduring legacy is with the MTA and his re-imagined subway map. The NY Times reflected on the 40th anniversary of the map: “ No sooner had the Metropolitan Transportation Authority introduced a new map of the New York subway system on Aug. 7, 1972, than complaints flooded in. Many stations seemed to be in the wrong places. The water surrounding the city was colored beige, not blue. As for Central Park, it appeared to be almost square, rather than an elongated rectangle, three times bigger than the map suggested, and was depicted in a dreary shade of gray”.


The map was, indeed, riddled with anomalies, but that was the point. Its designer, Massimo Vignelli, had sacrificed geographical accuracy for clarity by reinterpreting New York’s tangled labyrinth of subway lines as a neat diagram. Each station was shown as a dot and linked to its neighbors by color-coded routes running at 45- or 90-degree angles. Mr. Vignelli had used his design skills to tidy up reality.


Design buffs have always loved his map for its rigor and ingenuity. When the future graphic designer Michael Bierut made his first trip to New York in 1976, he took one home to Ohio as a souvenir. But many New Yorkers were outraged by what they saw as the misrepresentation of their city, while tourists struggled to relate Mr. Vignelli’s design to what they found above ground. In 1979, the M.T.A. bowed to public pressure by replacing his diagrammatic map with a geographical one.

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The 1972 subway map is in the collection of the MoMA and Vignelli designed a special, limited edition 2008 update of the subway system to raise money for the Green Worker Cooperative. And while the MTA still uses geographically accurate subway maps these days, Vignelli’s design is used for the MTA’s Weekender subway map and, most recently, the Super Bowl 2014 transportation map.


For more of his sleek work, the Vignelli and Bob Noorda-designed New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual is online, too. On the Vignelli Associates website, there’s a quote from Vignelli: “I like design to be semantically correct, syntactically consistent, and pragmatically understandable. I like it to be visually powerful, intellectually elegant, and above all timeless.” For more information, we invite you to follow the link below.