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New York, New York

Vintage Massimo Vignelli Subway Map

There's a piece of New York City transportation history hidden in plain sight at a Manhattan subway stop. 

When designer Massimo Vignelli’s redesigned New York City subway map appeared in 1972, people were less than enthusiastic. Where previous versions relied on a more recognizable approach to the map—water was blue, Central Park was more or less shaped like the actual location—Vignelli took a more unconventional approach. Water was beige and Central Park was square and scaled-down.

Vignelli’s map, or as he preferred, “diagram,” wasn’t intended to be an accurate representation of New York City. “There is no reason why this geography has to be literal,” Vignelli explained. “It could be completely abstract.”

He therefore decided to reinterpret the subway routes with some creative cartographic design. Stations became dots, threaded to their neighbors by color-coded lines with sharp angles. It was orderly, but not necessarily well-received by anyone but design lovers.

City residents disliked the artistic misrepresentations of their city. Tourists found it difficult to match their destinations with the representations on the map. In an era before Google Maps, his artistic flair made navigating the city’s underbelly a touch more stressful.

In 1979, the city replaced Vignelli’s map with a more traditional geographical model. This left Vignelli’s as a much-maligned, but also a much-revered treasure for graphic design enthusiasts.

In later years, however, even the city embraced Vignelli’s creation, hiring the designer to create a map for the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s mobile app using his original design as inspiration.

Most of the original Vignelli posters were torn down or covered over, but a recent discovery at a subway station on 57th Street has revealed the poster once again. The Manhattan station, a stop on the F-line, has one of Vignelli’s posters on display. Yet though there was some recent hype around this discovery, it’s more accurately a re-discovery, as the poster was spotted as long ago as 1999.

This new excitement is probably a combination of new eyes seeing the poster in its native habitat for the first time and amazement at the fact it’s still there (although the poster’s home underneath plexiglass may explain the latter). But for as long as it remains, tourists and residents alike can catch a glimpse of this controversial map, complete with its beige water and square park.