1972 NY Transit Map

Posted by Scott

A 1972 map of the New York Subway system. Going to be using this a lot in a couple weeks so thought I would post it up. This is of course based on English graphic designer Harry Beck’s original topographic map of the London Underground (as Paul Mison pointed out in the comments, this is a later version of the map, not Beck’s original). This style of map was revolutionary at the time (1933) since it eschewed the geographically correct maps of the age for topographic representations of systems.

A schematic diagram rather than a map, it represents not geography but relations. It considerably distorts the actual relative positions of stations, but accurately represents their sequential and connective relations with each other along the lines and their placement within fare zones.
– From Wikipedia “Tube Map” Article

This must have been a very big logical departure for a lot of people and a lot of credit is due to Beck for having the intuition to draw the map in this new way. Of course all this is beside the fact that it’s just plain beautiful to look at and a great work of graphic art in it’s own right. To this day, Beck’s map still influences the way networked systems are represented, the above image being a great example. I don’t think many designers can claim such a revolutionary concept as their own.

5 Comments Leave A Comment


Paul Mison says:

October 16, 2007 at 9:36 am

Beck’s diagram is indeed a work of genius, so it’s shame that you’ve linked to the 1960 diagram, which wasn’t by him at all. As the excellent books on the diagram (Mr Beck’s Underground Map and Underground Maps after Beck) describe, Beck was unceremoniously relieved of design duties, and the 1960 diagram – by Harold F Hutchinson – shows what a mess the replacement was. It’s angular, losing the subtle but important Beck curves, and the compression around Aldgate requires splitting a name in half. This is probably the sign of an obsessive, but that diagram is as different to a Beck diagram as the Vignelli NY map is from the non-diagrammatic map it replaced (and, sadly, was succeeded by).

Beck never designed the diagram officially again, but the replacement map by Garbutt set up the evolutionary chain that’s led to the current diagram (which I dislike; it’s taken on too much clutter with its disabled access information). If you’re going to link to a Beck diagram, I’d suggest his original, the 1933 map.


Max Roberts says:

December 18, 2007 at 1:26 pm

Vignelli’s map is much maligned, perhaps it could have been better. It is the culmination of a horrible sequence of design steps, which have unfairly led to the demise of diagrammatic maps of the New York Subway.

George Salomon created the first diagrammatic map of the NY Subway in 1959. Not as good as he wanted, the reactionary NYCTA wanted the map colour-coded by historic ownership (IRT, BMT, IND) rather than where the routes actually went. Nonetheless, it has an elegance that would be expected from a designer who worshiped Henry Beck.

When the Chrystie St connection opened in the 1960s, the upheaval to services was so immense that NYCTA decided to show individual routes on the map, a unique colour/pattern for each one, George Salomon’s design was ruined.

Vignelli essentially cleaned up this disaster, but all those individual colour stripes (one for every single route) were impossible to show well, the colour destructured the map. Add to this the problem that not all routes ran at all times, but these were undifferentiated on the map (you had to refer to the small print on a key to find out what ran when).

You have to separate the style (diagrammatic, geographical, pseudo-geographical) from the implementation. One colour for every single route would ruin all possible maps, including today’s NY Subway map.

Put it simply, Vignelli’s map was rejected by New Yorkers for complicated reasons, not necessarily lack of geographical accuracy. This is merely an easy obvious target.


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