Massimo Vignelli, Designer of Iconic NYC Subway Map, Dies

Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - 09:18 AM

Massimo Vignelli in 2010 (Jason/flickr)

Massimo Vignelli, who designed the iconic New York City subway map, died Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 83.

His version of the subway map — colorful lines against a white background, only a nod to geography — was in use for much of the 1970s, until the city replaced it in 1979. "We’re very proud of it, we love it,” Vignelli told NPR in 2011. “It’s not a city map. It is a diagram of how to go from point A to point B.” It lives on in the MTA's Weekender map.

A spokesman for New York's MTA said “Massimo Vignelli’s contribution to improving the way New Yorkers find their way around the subway system is hard to overstate, and it will endure for a long time to come."


He also co-produced the New York City Transit Authority's legendary Graphic Standards Manual, which standardized transit signage and introduced Helvetica to the U.S. In that same NPR interview, he said: “When I came to New York, we brought the type along because it didn’t exist at the time here. People say that I single-handedly turned this country into a Helvetica country."

(Nick Findley/Flickr)

He also used Helvetica in the signage he designed for Washington, D.C.'s Metro.


Vignelli created the logo for Bloomingdale's as well as the classic Helvetica lettering of the American Airlines logo.

And he designed furniture, housewares and, with his wife, clothing and jewelry. Much of his work is on permanent display in the Museum of Modern Art. In 2008, Vignelli donated his design archive to the Rochester Institute of Technology.

"I like design to be semantically correct, syntactically consistent, and pragmatically understandable," reads a statement of his on the Vignelli Associates website. "I like it to be visually powerful, intellectually elegant, and above all timeless."



Comments [3]

Paula Capps from Manhattan

I've been the subject of ridicule in my family because I have no sense of direction, so I left them and randomness behind and moved to New York, where most everything is organized on a grid. With out the grid, I wouldn't be able to get around, and after 30 years in NYC I still get lost in Greenwich Village.

So it is a giant relief for me to KNOW that the avenues in NYC run due north/south and I KNOW this because of the Vignelli subway map.

Still, it's wierd that my family continues to insist that Manhattan streets, like the island itself, tilt toward the northeast.

I know what the deal is -- it's the rest of the continent that is askew.

May. 28 2014 11:41 AM

Oh HE is the one who imposed on us that hideous non-serifed font is he? Now it's EVERYWHERE!

Everywhere you have to look at a sign you get that ugly font, everywhere you need to read something small which was always easier with serifed fonts, you get Helvetica.

You can't get away from it, whether in its helvetica version or the equally ugly Ariel font which is all over Google (except when they need to DESIGN something, when they immediately move to something easier to read), and all over city road signs. And all over web pages such as this one, - the important bit (the article) gets properly formatted while the rest (the comments) get stuck in sans-serif

I suppose it is payback, if he lifted the idea from London, that the ugly font has spread to London: Does anyone remember what the Abbey Road sign looked like before some communist dumbed-down-egalitarian changed all their signs to Ugliness-Central Helvetica?

May. 28 2014 10:11 AM
Terry Milner from New York City

While no doubt Mr. Vignelli was a gifted designer who made a lasting contribution to the form and function of public spaces, the reportage concerning his re-design of the New York City Subway map has been lacking in one respect. Mr. Vignelli's schematic diagram approach did not spring fully formed from his imagination. It had been in use for 40 years in London, where the map of the Underground was similarly transformed, in 1931, by Harry Beck. It is no criticism of Mr. Vignelli that he built on the innovations of others, but the media in this country must be ever vigilant against a cultural myopia that leads to such omissions and thus undermines its credibility.

May. 28 2014 08:40 AM

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