The subway map we all know today is based on a famous 1972 design by Massimo Vignelli, an Italian-American designer whose gem-colored diagram eschewed geographical honesty for visual clarity. At the time, Vignelli's elegant Modernist diagram pissed a lot of New Yorkers off. “A lot of people love it,” he said thirty years later. “And a lot of people hate it, too, by the way.” Eventually, the map was replaced with the slightly more realistic version we know today. But Vignelli's Helvetic-swathed iconography still graces everything from shirts and mugs to tattoos and children's books.
So what did the New York subway system look like before our current tan-and-rainbow map emerged? Well, for one thing, it appeared far denser and more difficult to read.
But those early maps also held a mirror up to the technological and design currents in the world at large. The ways in which information was conveyed were changing rapidly in the first half of the 20th century: From the way printing presses worked, to the development of san serif typefaces, to a revolution in how graphic designers thought about communicating through images.
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