NY subway map: Designing out of the box

I came across this link on the New York Times website that talks about how the current New York City subway map was designed. I found it to be fascinating. It was a neat article about how the design came about, and how thinking out-of-the-box resulted in ideas that made it better.

Out of curiosity, I looked for previous iterations of the NY subway map before it was overhauled starting in 1979. I came across this map from 1978 on NYCSubway.org. Although I don’t actually live in NYC, I know it well enough to be able to get around and survive. I don’t know about you, but if I tried to use this map to get around New York City, I’d probably be totally lost. I only vaguely remember how rough NYC subways were at that time (for some people, that bad reputation endures to this day), but it wouldn’t have surprised me if this map contributed to subway rider angst.

A number of things struck me as I went through the Times‘ interactive article.

  • Designing out of the box: Some of the design techniques included, among other things, designing lines by riding the subway with eyes closed and sketching how they “felt,” eschewing “straight-line maps” used by many other subway maps to reduce confusion, and combining parallel routes into trunk lines.

    I think it goes to show how much can be accomplished with unconventional thinking.

    Much of this out-of-the-box thinking emphasizes a concept that I espouse as a technical communicator, which is…
  • Less is more: As I’ve said time and again, reading is work. If a document needs to be understood within seconds, and it takes more than a few seconds to comprehend a document, it has failed. Innovations, such as the aforementioned trunk lines, strategically using varying colors and fonts, and eliminating superfluous landmarks, contributed to making the map easier to follow.
  • Documenting history: I also found the interactive article to be a neat history lesson about the NY transit system, map design, and New York history in general.

Any time that I take a trip down to the City, I take the NYC subway map for granted. I now have a greater appreciation of it, and I’ll probably be thinking about it the next time I hop a NYC subway.

And for those of you who are planning a trip to New York City, hopefully, this makes your planning somewhat easier!

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