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Transit Cartography Features Fun Maps Map Design Editor's Picks Public Sector

Creating a new view of the New York City subway

What do you do if you are professional designer, a maven of user experience, a transplant from Finland and you ride the New York City subway everyday? You redesign the map of course.

NY Subway Redesign1

image credit: Tommi Moilanen (click map for full size)

Tommi Moilanen works “at the intersection of interaction design, industrial design and service design.” In other words, if you benefit from one of his concepts, you’ll have a better user experience

Making maps is outside of his usual work, but when you come from a place of artistry and experience you can’t help but look at the world that way. And if you live in New York for at least a year, you essentially become part of the ecosystem — either moving along and playing your part or being observant and seeing room for disruption. “I had the idea long before I started the design. Using the subway everyday, I realized things could be improved. I was also fascinated with the Vignelli map,” says Tommi.

1972 VIgnelli Map2

image credit: NYCsubway.org

This map, as commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and designed by Massimo Vignelli, was unveiled as the official New York City subway map in 1972. It was the stuff of precise cartographers’ nightmares. As the New York Times put it: “The map was, indeed, riddled with anomalies, but that was the point. Its designer… had sacrificed geographical accuracy for clarity by reinterpreting New York’s tangled labyrinth of subway lines as a neat diagram.”

An inaccurate map? We shudder at the thought and the public wouldn’t have it at that time either. With much ado and debate, seven years later a new map was introduced — improved but not wholly accurate either given the chaotic nature of the New York system design itself. There have been some style updates over the years but for the most part, the 1979 map is still official. (The latest below - click on image to enlarge.)

NYC 2015 Subway Map

image credit: MTA

The bigger picture

However, in his redesign, Tommi is after form and function. If you need to know which are express and which are local trains, you won’t get that from the map. Also, “Though noticeable on the map, Central Park, is just one of the parks. Other geographical details like water and airports are shown in similar shades so none of them really stand out. In my map, you can instantly see the park and it is so clear that it can only be Central Park. It doesn’t even need a label. In that sense it becomes like a ‘you are here’ anchor,” he explains.

Some stations could be also be more prominent, according to Tommi, for, well, their prominence. “Stations like Grand Central and Times Square, which I frequent, are major hubs. Most people know where they are located. So by increasing their sizes on the map, you connect the subway systems to the city more and make it easier for people to get around,” he says.

And why not unite the entire subway experience a bit more — create a common feel and interface. Tommi believes there is an opportunity to streamline the map’s identity to align more with the look and feel of the trains, the turnstiles, the signage, etc. “The map should look like it belongs to New York,” he says.

When will we have Tommi’s map in our pockets? “I haven’t taken it to the MTA or anything, but there’s been such a great response, you never know.”

He’s also not the only one who thinks metro systems maps need an overhaul.

Lead image via Nicolai Berntsen

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