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March, 19th 2012 15:30:52 / by Katrin Scheikl

Subway maps: New design for better usability?

The New York City Subway is the fourth busiest rapid transit rail system in the world. There are 26 subway lines with 468 stations. Not an easy thing to visualize.* In 2010 a major design relaunch tried to improve the maps’ readability. But subway map design has a long history.

1931: The London Underground, Harry Beck
In 1931 Harry Beck, an electrical draughtsman at the London Underground, was the first to produce a diagrammatic map. According to the New York Times this map would “go down in history for its graphical ingenuity”. Beck based the map on the circuit diagrams; the result was an instantly clear and comprehensible chart. This revolutionary design has survived to the present day. Beck also made some drafts of diagrammatic maps for the Paris Métropolitain.

1972: New York Subway, Massimo Vignelli
In 1972 Massimo Vignelli reduced the boroughs of New York to white geometric shapes and eliminated most of the topographic details and the level of visual noise by using gray (not green) to denote Central Park and beige (not blue) to shade New York’s waterways. This new and more comprehensible design was radical and often criticized. In 1979 Vignellis map was replaced by a more traditional topographical version, including the New York City street grid and blue color for the waterways.

2010: New York Subway, The Weekender
The new subway map for New York, introduced in 2010, was said to be a huge improvement but is still struggling to serve two purposes: the aim was to comprehensively represent the streets and to help navigation through the New York underground. There was, however, a great digital improvement: ‘the Weekender’, a little online guide to service interruptions.

Source: Fastcodesign.com, New York Times, Transport for London

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Profile Katrin Scheikl

World Identity Lab Editor. Born 1985 in Graz, Austria. Journalism and Organisational Communications at the Universitiy of Applied Sciences FH Joanneum, Graz. Various projects. Working for moodley since May 2011.

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