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Michael Hertz, Designer of the NYC Subway Map

michaelhertz.jpgIn a constantly changing city, it's impressive to realize that New Yorkers have had essentially the same subway map for almost 30 years. The current map varies only in detail from the one that Michael Hertz and the MTA presented to the public in 1979. Its predecessor map's design is primarily credited to Massimo Vignelli, and it was criticized as being too abstract. Hertz was hired by the MTA to create a new map that incorporated a more realistic look, as well as more information about the city itself and its transportation system.

Earlier this year, we wrote about a recent new map design for the subway system called the KickMap that was designed by a graphic designer named Eddie Jabbour. This prompted Michael Hertz to contact us and share a lot of information about what went into the design of the current map––the constraints, the design process, the rationales behind some decisions, and even the issues of color and typography that had to be accounted for in designing a unified and usable map. We recently asked Mr. Hertz a few questions we had about being the designer of one of the most recognizable maps in the world.

You were asked to design a one-size-fits-all map that encompasses everything from bus connections, neighborhoods, and waterway passages. If you had free rein at the time, what would you have done differently?
This is almost impossible to answer. Every design project is a response to a set of problems, and a good design turns the challenges to its advantage. In the case of the subway map perhaps the biggest constraint was that it had to fit into the existing map frames in every subway car. Negative public response to the abstraction of the Vignelli map seems to have dictated that the new map be geographical in appearance. This meant that in order to make the most of the space available and therefore to make the map readable (since New York’s actual geography is taller and narrower) was to knead, bend and squeeze the map to fit in the already existing frame. Once we did this we realized that we could nip and tuck smaller areas of the city to give more space to congested areas like lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn without major damage to the overall sense of the city’s geography. This has become a signature of the map’s design. Would we have hit on this solution without this constraint? Who knows?

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Fig. 1 (from "Seeing NY, the official MTA Travel Guide," 1976)

People love to compare your map to its predecessor, designed by Vignelli and radically different from yours. What were the most salient factors spurring your redesign?
Although a strikingly handsome design, Vignelli's map was criticized by riders for its inability to assist you in knowing how the underground world of the subway related to the above-ground geography. For instance, at 50th Street and 8th Avenue you must walk a long block east to Broadway whereas Vignelli clearly shows it as an intersection. And, after the first printing in ‘72, the reverse side became just an enlargement of the central area of the map, necessary because of minuscule station nomenclature, just about impossible to read while peering over the shoulders of a seated rider. We did not arrive immediately at our design. The 1979 map actually evolved as the third conceptual approach that we experimented with as a response to dissatisfaction with the Vignelli map.

The first approach came in our 1976 atlas Seeing NY, the official MTA Travel Guide [fig.1] where we used one bright red line for all the routes on a geographically accurate scale base map with every street delineated, (a 180 degree shift from Vignelli), while still using Vignelli's 8-color palette. This was dictated by the book’s author, John Tauranac. The density of detail in this map could only work in a multi-page atlas format wherein the city is cookie-cut into many small segments. It certainly could not work in a 23 x 30 inch subway car frame (which is proportioned differently from the geography of New York City) or even in a folding hand-held map; the amount of detail would have required a sheet of paper much too large to be handled and folded easily.

In November of 1975, public dissatisfaction with the Vignelli map prompted the NY City Transit Authority to organize a committee to study the problem of designing a better map that could be used by almost everyone to find their way in our complex but always interesting city. This committee (on which I served as designer) under chairman John Tauranac eventually produced the 1978 version, used for testing but never seen by the riding public except once in a while for sale on Ebay [fig. 2]. This version still used Vignelli's eight colors to designate the route 'bullets' and a single color red for all the lines., The geographic detail was cut back with only operational and thoroughfare streets drawn, and the geography was modified to fit into the frames. To our dismay, when this map was scientifically tested by Dr. Arline Bronzaft, a psychologist well known for her studies on the transit environment, most of the respondents in their comments preferred and defended Vignelli's approach. However the actual scores told us something different; these respondents scored significantly higher in the practical task of finding one's way on 'paper trips' using the new MTA prototype.

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Fig. 2 (cropped section of 1978 MTA prototype map)

Based on the results of testing the 1978 map, we went back and refined our design. For this map we adopted a 'Trunk Line' color coding [one color for each avenue of operation in Manhattan] based on an the almost universal demand from the public for more colors to better delineate the routes. We also made further targeted modifications to the geography, widening Manhattan and opening up lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn to eliminate the need for an enlarged inset of this area (in the 1978 map), while taking care to retain a relatively “correct” distance relationship between geographic points. The result was the final 1979 [fig.3] product that was printed and widely distributed as a stand-alone map serving almost intact as the conceptual basis for the current map with well over 100 million printed to date. I have included a sketch of one of the drafts [fig. 4] drawn by colleague and old friend, Nobu Siraisi.

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Fig.3 (1979 subway map for wide release)

When one looks at subway maps in other cities (e.g. Paris, London, DC), they all have a certain impressionistic, angular similarity. New York's is very organic looking. Do you think that has something to do with a municipal personality, so to speak, versus other cities, or is that simply a matter of design requirements?
The simple answer is that New York is the one of the largest and most complex transit systems, and it is the only city whose system was originally created by three private companies operating partially overlapping lines and not as a single comprehensive system, all competing for the same riders in the Wall Street area over a hundred years ago. Because of this complexity Vignelli’s map failed when he tried this "angular" approach. Also, per some kind of Murphy's Law, the greatest density of service just happens to cover the tiniest area of the map, skinny little Manhattan island, and especially the tight little triangle of lower Manhattan.

A more complex response to this question is that every design is a product of its time and place. Many European maps reflect the dominance of modernism there at the time they were designed (and up until the present day). However, several European cities (notably London in 1983) developed a geographically-based map subsequent to our design (in 1982 I designed and sent to Tony Ridley, then Director of London Transport, a prototype for a London Underground Map based on the same kind of modified geography as our NY map).

More than five million passengers ride the subway every day. A good portion of them stare at or consult your map while on their journey. Do you ever take the subway, look at your map, and think about tiny changes you wish you could make (font size, angles, perspective) that just drive you crazy?
Not really. The system itself is far too complex for any map alone to answer every question. A map can only work in concert with other elements like good signage, which we started thinking about even before the 1979 map went to print. Unlike most design projects, this map was designed over the course of three years. It was reviewed internally at MTA and revised many times. Many options were considered and most of the major problems were worked out before it hit the streets. Of course, there are always things one would tweak, but they are not likely to be changes that the public would notice.

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Fig. 4 (Hand drawn sketch for the 1979 design, by Nobu Siraisi)

What is the one thing that you are most proud of about your 30-year-old design?
That it IS a 30 year-old design. This kind of longevity is virtually unheard of in the transit business with the exception of London. Vignelli has been quoted in the NY Times, calling our current map a "mongrel." I should point out to Mr. Vignelli that "mongrels" or what I prefer to call "hybrids" are usually healthier, smarter and longer lived creatures than his "thoroughbred" turned out to be.

We've written about Eddie Jabbour and his KickMap design that the MTA considered and then dismissed. Do you think the MTA will ever alter the subway map in the future and under what circumstances (other than the addition of something like the 2nd Ave. line)?
One would like to think that most people subscribe to an ”if it ain't broke don't fix it,” philosophy but you never know. In the long run, the odds are probably not in our favor. Mr. Jabbour's map is certainly attractive and easy to follow from station to station. He has gone to the trouble of revisiting Vignelli's multiplicity of lines, ignoring the space saving "trunk line" concept we initiated in the MTA maps, and once again relegating the city's surface geography to the mystery it was to riders in 1972, that we helped solve in the 1979 map. Also, even though he has separated out express and local service, this is of little help in deciphering night, weekend, rush hour and other part time service idiosyncrasies which abound in our system.

You were asked to design not just a subway map, but the map of a city. Aside from New York's map and unconstrained by design requirements, what do you consider the best subway/metro map from any city around the world?
If your name were on a secret ballot, would you ever really vote for someone else? That said, one has to admire the London map for its longevity and the iconic status that Harry Beck achieved. And speaking of longevity, our series of 83 large Neighborhood Maps of NY City from 1983-present, mounted in every station, would be have to be included in my personal pantheon of well designed transit graphics, helping riders find their way for a quarter of a century.