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Vignelli exposed

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The exposed Vignelli map at the 57 Street F station is a bit sad — I got the sense that it’s not much longer for this world. It’s obviously been covered up for a while, and it’s difficult to imagine that it’ll stay this way. The other side of the sign has a new map in place, but the Vignelli side is missing its glass panel. Maybe it’s too expensive to replace, so it remains exposed? Who knows, but now it sits there, grande dame-like, not really getting the respect it deserves.

At any rate, it’s an interesting, unexpected piece of graphic design history, forgotten and out in the open for anyone to see. In the lower-right hand corner it’s dated August 1974 (barely ripped away), so it’s a revision to the original, two years prior. Many layers of even older maps are visible in the rips and tears, hinting at earlier times. Although judging from the design of the sign fixture itself, I’m betting it’s from about the same time as the 1972 map, or a few years before.

Now I’m wondering if there are more. Maybe out at the ends of the line, where maintenance is less regular? Time to go hunting in Far Rockaway.

[High-res images on Flickr.]

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Paul Shaw responds.

Paul Shaw responds to my write-up of the AIGA Subway event with Vignelli and Hertz.
Dear Paul,
Thanks for praising my book and writing up the AIGA NY Subway Event evening. But you should know that the only person on stage that night who worked for the MTA was Doris Halle. Michael Hertz has never been an MTA (or NYCTA) employee. He has run his own design studio since the early 1970s (or maybe it is late 1960s — he does not have a website for himself or his firm). He has designed maps not only for the New York subway system but for the Washington Metro system, the city of Houston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Atlanta Olympics and others. The current subway map is not his doing. It is indeed based on the 1979 map which he designed based on the desires of the map committee chaired by John Tauranac which included citizens, MTA staff, psychologists and others. The idea for the map was not Hertz’s but members of the committee who disliked the Vignelli map from day one. This whole history will be made public in 2011 when Peter Lloyd and Mark Ovenden’s book on the history of New York subway maps is published. The story is much more complicated than what I have said here or what you will read online. I do not even know all of the details, only what Peter has let slip.
But I say all of this not to defend the 1979 (even though it is much more functional than the Vignelli one) but to point out that Hertz is not some MTA bureaucrat or some hack designer. He and Vignelli have legitimate philosophical debates about what a map should do and how that should be done. But that is different from the debates over aesthetics that tend to colorize discussions of the two major New York subway maps.
I hope you are no longer depressed by the AIGA NY evening. The news that clients fuck up great design solutions is nothing new. What is new here is that the secret we all know is not only out in the open but that the process has, to an extent, been laid bare. And the good news is that great design often survives bad clients, even if it is no longer in its original pristine form.
Finally, about Massimo’s lament that he was not asked to redesign his own work, I think there are several reasons: 1. he may have been too expensive, 2. since there were complaints about what he did it was unlikely he would be asked to fix his own work (and that if he was asked he would probably have been very defensive and turned down the offer since the MTA’s views would have clashed with his), and 3. the bureaucrats may have totally forgotten who did the work originally (remember that there is turnover in such agencies and that the people are not design-oriented; Vignelli is not famous to them. All they know is the map or the signs or whatever.).
All the best and thanks for buying a copy of the book (and Jan’s book as well).
Paul

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A modular system has been devised.

Re-creations of the cover and a few pages from Unimark’s 1970 masterpiece, the New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual.
Letter spacing / Page 9 (larger)
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Letter spacing / Page 10 (larger)
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Helvetica and the New York City Subway System / Paul Shaw
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Cover (larger)
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Type face / Page 4 — grid (larger)
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Type face / Page 4 (larger)
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The AIGA talk a few nights ago got me thinking about the 1970 NYC Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual that’s supposedly buried somewhere here in our office. In its absence I found myself coming back to page 46 of Paul Shaw’s book, totally in love with Vignelli’s presentation, wishing for the real thing. Basic lessons in modern typography — letterforms, spacing, sizing, grid. And the insane kerning chart on page 10 that pre-dates “shift-option-]” by thirty years.
Then I had the totally crazy idea to reverse engineer the grid and create one of the pages in Illustrator. I tried not to question it — half dare, half therapeutic exercise, I quickly set up “Type face / Page 4″ and kept going.
It’s not like I don’t have anything better to do — we’re really busy here at Soulellis Studio. Spending a day engulfed in the study of something you love — for no other reason but to see what you’ll find — is a luxury I can never afford. But I was able to get away with it today and it slowed my heart rate and I got a chance to absorb something I thought I knew in a totally different way. Highly recommended.

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Vignelli works it out.

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Last night’s AIGA event started off with a Bob Noorda tribute by Jan Conradi (author of Unimark International: The Business of Design and the Design of Business), but then Massimo Vignelli took the stage and the show really began.
As reported: “he’s jaded, bitter and hilarious — all important ingredients for a modernist maestro.” Apparently Vignelli suggested the conversation, upon publication of Paul Shaw’s impressive book Helvetica and the New York City Subway System, which documents the evolution of the system’s graphics from the mid-1960s on. I bought both books at the event — each meticulously designed, beautiful, full of juicy detail.
Vignelli began the conversation, moderated by Shaw and Conradi, with an overview of the Unimark design process. The highlights:

  • Put the signs at the point of decision, not before or after
  • Standardize the support (the black bar at the top of the white signs)
  • Standardize the graphic modules (1 x 1 for arrows, 1 x 2 for information, 1 x 4 for directionals, 1 x 8 for station ID) — “You could make any message by putting these panels together.”
  • Three type sizes only
  • “Design is not embellishment — it’s about solving the problem.”
  • “Non-visual people panic when they see a map, so we have to take care of them too.” (the never-realized “Directory”)
  • “When working with a huge organization like the transit authority, how brilliantly you make your design is not as important as how brilliantly you master the implementation. The huge client will destroy it — they’re huge destroyers.”

So at this point I realized that Vignelli’s got a bone to pick.
Next up on stage is Michael Hertz and colleagues. Hertz was awarded the subway work in 1979 when the MTA decided not to work with Vignelli any longer. Hertz is responsible for the NYC subway map we use today. Until last night, the two had never met. Hertz began by saying that Vignelli’s famous 1972 map is immortal, and beautiful. So how did the current mess happen? During the next hour it was battled out — reasons ranging from ADA requirements, the expansion of the system, “giant client” problems and MTA gems like “Marketing was high on the list of things to do” and “There was a lot of thinking going on” (??)
But Vignelli really said it best — with MTA decision-makers on stage and in the audience:

  • “The transit authority was never aware of what it meant as a system, which is why it could never be implemented properly. When there’s a problem, why not go back to the original consultant? That’s not the way intelligent people solve problems.”
  • “A diagram is a diagram — don’t cheat me. The current map is a by-product of someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.”

At the end of the discussion the tension between Vignelli and Hertz was as clear as the differences between their respective maps. By the time an MTA guy stood up in the audience to plea his defense (to laughter and applause), I realized that so much more was happening. We were getting a taste of:

  • Design vs. operational bureaucracy
  • Abstraction vs. literalness
  • Clarity vs. clutter
  • Systemic change vs. incremental tinkering
  • European elitism vs. American pragmatism, etc.

As enthused as I was leaving Bierut’s client talk a few weeks ago, I walked home from this talk kind of down. I was looking for inspiration but found discouragement — big clients who don’t “get it” are bad, smart design legends are good. I guess in the end everyone’s happy: we’ve got a subway system we (sometimes) love and Massimo is still worshipped and Michael Hertz still has a client who keeps him busy. Life goes on.

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The Vignelli Canon.

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Massimo Vignelli surprised me last night @ the Type Directors Club Night of the Italians when he enthusiastically proclaimed that “the book is dead, books have reached a ceiling,” and that the web is all about the democratization of culture. Of course I agree, but really didn’t expect to hear these words from him. In case you missed the Vignelli Canon that circulated earlier this year, here it is. To prove his own point, he mentioned that in two months the PDF was downloaded 300,000 times.
Oh, and on being trendy: “If you’re never in, then you’re never out.”
Words to live by.
The Vignelli Canon.