John Tauranac Talks New York City Subway Map History
A subway map of New York City appears to be completely utilitarian and to the untrained eye even pedestrian. In the eyes of another it is a document rife with information. What can be found in the subway maps of New York City is management lineage, a design statement, design history, history of the city, history of business, social history, aesthetics and intention. The adage of “read between the lines” reveals much when looking at a subway map.
At the onset of the New York City subway system, there were three lines: IRT, BMT and IND lines. The first subway line was the IRT, a 9th Ave line and it started in 1904. These were individually owned and operated companies, not falling under the aegis of one system for many years. In 1940 all lines merged into one. Prior to the merging of all three lines, subway maps were produced by each company separately, generally depicting their line to the exclusion of the other lines. Competition for ridership was fierce and outweighed the pragmatics and purpose of a mass transit system.
Initially subway maps were produced by businesses, whose need for revenue produced maps that showed all the subway lines equally and major points of interest. For example, The Chelsea Hotel on 23rd St. produced a number of handsome maps for the subway rider, starting in the 1930s. Once the lines were merged in 1940, the real work of creating a map that was both useful and aesthetically pleasing began. On Tuesday April 27th, John Tauranac presented The “Unofficial” Subway Maps: A Look at How Individual Mapmakers Have Depicted the Mysterious Workings of the Subway at the Mid-Manhattan Library.
John Tauranac is a mapmaker. He was design chief of the classic 1979 NYC subway map that has formed the basis of the all NYC subway maps since that initial design. John Tauranac is also a connoisseur of maps and that was made clear throughout his talk. One of the first statements he said when he began his discussion was “clarity is king.” By this he meant that a map, any map, needs to be useful. If not useful then what is the point of the map. Pragmatism should be desired over aesthetics. Keeping this in mind, John also went on to eloquently state, “Graphic design is a solution to a problem, with an overlay of aesthetics.”
What followed was a tour of historical New York City subway maps, whereby the discussion veered into nuance and overall design of each map. John talked at length on the difference between a schematic depiction versus a geographic depiction of the subway system. A schematic map does not necessarily follow the geography of an area. If the information desired to be on the map distorts the area being drawn, so be it. A geographic map is the opposite; the mapmaker strives to keep the integrity of the geography in tact. He then showed examples of maps where attempts had been made to reconcile the two. John also waxed and waned on more subtle aspects of subway map beauty. The choice of some mapmakers to use unnatural colors for natural occurrences, such as making the bodies of water throughout the city yellow or making parks gray instead of green, John felt was a poor design choice. John pointed out how something seemingly small can lead to great effect, like blackening an outer edge line, to create clarity, at the same time enhancing the overall beauty of the map by establishing a visual contrast. The thin darkened line brightens the color within the line, making it easier to see and also making it more aesthetically pleasing.
The mapping of the New York City Subway System is complicated. Our transit system has express lines, night and weekend service, as well as a complex network of transfer points. We are the only transit system in the world that has all these things. Choices about what information to include and what not to include on a map must be considered. Also, the way in which certain features will be expressed must also weigh into the design discussion. All these considerations lead to a level complexity that makes the mapmakers task very challenging.
There have been designs of the NYC subway map where, in one instance, the look of the map was more important than the overall utility. World class designer Massimo Vignelli was commissioned to design a map for the city. The result was the 1972 subway map. It is a striking document, austere, even restrained. It is a schematic map where lines of color represent the different train lines. For my eye it is simply too minimal and disconnected from the subterranean world of trains under the city, as well as the hustle and bustle that floats along the city’s surface. Vignelli’s map description is a disembodied relative of the complex cityscape New Yorkers experience both above and below ground.
A remedy to Vignelli’s map was the 1979 subway map, whose skeletal remains have formed the basis of all the city’s subway maps since. It is a geographical map that is at once understood and appreciated by riders everyday.