The complexity of underground mass transit, one of the most heavily used transportation methods in the world today, inspired me to investigate how designers create solutions to the issues unique to this particular mode of travel. The nature of the underground environment makes a strong case for the implementation of design that is functional, clear, and unified; ornamentation only hinders the ability of subway riders to navigate the system efficiently and poses potential problems for uninitiated users.
The development of mass transit systems arose out of the need to create an efficient flow of transportation in cities that were growing at unprecedented rates due to the Industrial Revolution. The influx of people into cities created overcrowded streets that made movement incredibly difficult. At first, municipal authorities attempted to tackle the congestion problems by introducing long carriages, known as omnibuses, to ferry groups of people throughout the city. While the omnibuses provided some relief, it became clear that a more efficient system would need to be developed that did not rely on existing roadways to transport people. For many cities the solution was to go underground.
London Underground: Mapping
London was the first city to successfully build and use a system of underground travel when the Metropolitan line, or Met, opened to the public on January 10th, 1863. Construction of the line was done using a method known as “cut and cover” where workers excavated a shallow trench and then roofed over the area to create a tunnel for the trains. Despite the many problems that plagued the construction of the Met, the benefits of underground travel were soon realized by the 26,500 Londoners that used the line each day. By 1884, the Met and other newly constructed railways in London had started to intersect, creating a navigable system that needed oversight, because the railways at this time were not owned or operated by a single entity. It was only with the formation of the Underground Electric Railway Company of London (the Underground group) in 1902 that all existing lines were merged together. By 1908, the Underground name and its famous roundel began appearing in stations marking the beginning of a cohesive identity for London’s entire underground system.
Around this same time, a map had been developed to help riders navigate the system by depicting each railway as a different colored line superimposed over an existing map of London’s geography. In 1931, a young draftsman named Harry Beck realized that riders didn’t necessarily need to know where they were in relation to aboveground landmarks and decided to present a redesign to the Underground authority. In his design, Beck eliminated all surface indicators except the Thames River and refined the colored rail lines to look more like an electric circuit diagram. Station names were spaced equidistant along the lines regardless of their geographic proximity to each other. He rationalized that successful navigation of the rails only relied on line and station identification and that by stripping away excess visual information, the design became easier to understand. Beck’s map set a precedent for underground navigational systems that was as aesthetically appealing as it was functional.
After a trial run of the maps revealed public approval of Beck’s redesign, the London Underground began printing Beck’s copy as the official service map. Most other subway systems that were being developed at the same time as the Underground used Beck’s map as the starting point for their own designs.
New York City Subway: Signage and Mapping
The Interborough Rapid Transit Company opened New York City’s first underground subway line in 1904, transporting over 100,000 people on opening day. Over the next thirty years, three separate companies (the IRT, the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Company and the Independent Subway System) built and operated the remainder of the underground system in New York City. In 1940, all of the existing underground rail lines were united under public ownership and with the formation of the Metropolitan Transit Authority in 1968 the subway system was unified, but with it came the need to refit stations with consistent, clear signage.
In the 1960s, Bob Noorda and Massimo Vignelli of Unimark International were commissioned to develop a legible, universal sign system for the MTA. Noorda had recently won the Premio Compasso d’Oro in 1964 for his work on the signage of the Metropolatina Milanese. New York City’s Transit Authority felt pressure to revamp their signage system when Milan’s metro system was unveiled; officials were also worried about the city’s image with New York hosting the 1964 World’s Fair. In the chaotic environment of New York City subway stations, passenger confusion was perpetuated by a lack of uniformity in the mosaic-tiled and hand-painted signs.
To create a standardized template for their signage, Unimark developed (from Noorda’s work in Milan) a system of panels that could be used in any number of arrangements depending on what information needed to be displayed. Panel dimensions were “1’x1’ for line identification, 1’x2’ for information, 1’x4’ for direction, or 1’x8’ for station identification”. By codifying navigational information, designing signs to be legible and uniform, and writing the Graphics Standards Manual for the Transit Authority, Unimark was able to eliminate the inefficiencies of the old system and create order out of the web of information that had plagued the line before.
Vignelli’s work for the MTA did not stop after the new signage system was put in place however, and in 1971 he submitted his plans for a new subway map. Like Harry Beck’s map 40 years before, Vignelli’s design boasted dots for stations and angled, colored lines for railways. Vignelli’s map was easy to read and was praised for its beauty as a design object. He envisioned a solution for diagramming the unique complexities of New York’s underground system by overlapping and intertwining various rail lines. What emerged was a highly conceptual map that worked well below ground, though many were quick to find fault with the map’s inaccuracies in aboveground geography. While Vignelli did take some liberty in drawing the geography of the city, the importance of his map as a design object should not be understated. Its primary function as printed matter—which it fulfilled quite well—was to provide understanding and direction to the millions of riders that use the subway, not as a tourist’s walking map.
When Michael Hertz designed a map to replace Vignelli’s in 1979, he placed more importance on surface geography, but in doing so, his design lost some of the aesthetic appeal that made Vignelli’s so unique. In Hertz’ 1978 prototype map, all the routes were represented by a highly visible pantone red line, and the separate lines running on each route were given their separate color designations (based on Unimark’s signage). After testing, however, Hertz opted for a more successful trunk line color-coding system (more like Vignelli’s) in which each route had its own color. After Hertz introduced the new map, the city was polarized between the two designs. Many recognized the success of the old map in fulfilling the need to diagram the connections between subway lines solely, while others insisted that geographical accuracy was important in creating a navigable city, both above and below ground. The successes and failures of the two designs have been the subject of much debate since the switch and even inspired one design firm to create a map that attempts to marry the successes of both.
Enter the Kick Map. In 2004, Eddie Jabbour of Kick Design created a map that would hybridize the diagrammatic aesthetic of Beck and Vignelli’s designs with the geographic accuracy of topographic maps. In doing so, he hoped to create the strongest possible tool for navigating the complexities of New York’s underground. The Kick Map incorporates the schematic appeal of Vignelli’s design that translates well to users trying to navigate the rails linearly. Each tunnel is not only represented by a color, but different trains running on the same tracks are indicated with their own lines. Jabbour mirrored Hertz’ approach by making sure geography was accurate before overlaying the subway lines. Jabbour had the benefit of nearly 35 years of critical discourse to take into account when designing his map and, despite the MTA’s reluctance to adopt the Kick Map, the development of app technology in smart phones has provided a welcome platform for Jabbour’s design. Much like the maps developed by Beck, Vignelli, and Hertz, Jabbour’s functionalist approach and simple design make it a promising candidate for future development.
150 Years of Underground Transit
The creation of underground travel some 150 years ago provided designers with a unique set of problems that required innovative and modern solutions. To have successfully created such a complex system below the earth’s surface required a great amount of ingenuity on the part of architects, engineers, politicians, laborers and designers. While the aforementioned design solutions are but small steps in a larger and more complex set of problems, they reveal how we as humans understand and adapt to our changing environment.
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