Yellow taxicabs. A stroll through Central Park. A visit to the MET. They are all part of the well-rounded NYC experience. But it wouldn’t be complete without a trip on the New York City subway. Whether you’re an urban dweller passing through the turnstiles on a daily basis, or a first-time visitor using it to navigate your way through the Big Apple, you’re one of five million who use the 112-year-old subway system every day.
How many of them ever think about how a system can transport millions of human bodies underground 365 days a year? Or how it can direct someone that has never set foot on a subway train before from one location to another—seamlessly and without needing to be translated in multiple languages?
But that’s what it does. This insane piece of infrastructure, over a century in the making, is a modern marvel, and one of the earliest examples of user experience design as we know it today.
The entire history of the New York City subway system would need its own bookshelf. But one of those stories tells how a European designer—with his business partner—overhauled the entire NYC subway system, and made it what it is today.
Occasional train delay aside, you might never look at riding the subway in the same way ever again.
Until the mid-1960s, navigating the NYC subway system meant stepping into chaos. It was a labyrinth of mismatched signage and overlapping communication styles with no real pattern or logic. If the iconic German industrial designer Dieter Rams had published his Ten Principles for Good Design a decade earlier, he would almost certainly have described it as “an impenetrable confusion of forms, colors and noises”.
This conglomeration of assorted visual styles resulted in a flawed user experience in dire need of a system-wide overhaul. With the rising international popularity of graphic design standards, corporate identity, and a growing public awareness of ‘good design’, it became clear that the subway needed a new visual identity and a more effective navigational system.
In 1965, modernist graphic designer Massimo Vignelli and his business partner Bob Noorda landed stateside, and established Unimark International, a new design consultancy, in New York. They had built a substantial body of design work across Europe, and now aimed to bring their modernist design values to meet the growing design needs of American corporate clients.
Around this time, the two were introduced to Mildred Constantine, an influential design curator at the Museum of Modern Art, and well connected in the city’s social scene. She was familiar with their earlier design work, and recommended them to her contacts at the New York City Transit Authority—the operators of the city’s subway system.
Desperate for a transformation of their nightmarish navigation system, the Transit Authority immediately signed Unimark on, with a brief to modernize and unify the subway’s signage and wayfinding system. The designers would need to understand what billions of people were looking for, where they would look for it and, ultimately, provide it, in the least confusing way possible.
In less than a year after landing on American soil, Vignelli and Noorda had secured what would become the definitive project of their lives.
In the mid-sixties, when the project landed in Unimark’s lap, the existing subway was over 60 years old, and in a state of disarray. With no cohesive visual hierarchy or guiding principles in place, there was no existing logic from which Vignelli and Noorda could work. Clearly, they would have to throw out everything they knew about the existing infrastructure and start afresh.
For the first few years, they spent hours underground, watching the flow of passengers getting on and off trains and moving through stations. They studied their habits. Where did they go? Where did they look for information?
Over the years, many different companies had been commissioned to provide the underground signage, and so directional signs competed with one another in terms of size, typeface, use of abbreviations, and in many cases, even lighting.
In Noorda’s own words, “their system was a mess.”
“As a design consultancy, particularly in the sense that we think of design consultancies today, this was the beginning of when graphic designers realized that they could make consulting their practice,” says Alexander Tochilovsky, Design Curator at the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography at The Cooper Union in New York City. As both a design curator and a professional designer, Tochilovsky has a unique perspective—knowing why something works in a historical context, as well as how a designer might have reached that design solution.
“It wasn’t so much making logos and designing posters—it was more a holistic approach towards applying design strategy to business and business interests. Graphic design was just half the story. For them, the approach was to try to figure out what was wrong and, in effect, fix the broken system.”
Ultimately, Unimark wasn’t just focused on the way things should look; the designers were focused on how things should be experienced. They were moving towards something more closely related to the user experience design that goes into the smartphone apps of today, rather than just a simple poster illustration or logo design.
“There are other instances of UX design that existed much, much earlier, but in terms of how we think about user experience design today, this is one of the best examples,” explains Tochilovsky. “From the challenge they were up against to the way they researched it, this design problem was very much rooted in the user experience system of design.”
Unimark’s best strategy was, unsurprisingly, to scrap decades-old, mismatched signage and the broken wayfinding system, and to start again from scratch.
“This was the beginning of building the heart of the system, the core of the UX,” says Tochilovsky. “Through their extensive research they figured out what kind of information people were looking for, then they figured out where that information should be presented throughout the subway system, and why.”
But just as important as knowing which information should be fed to users, is knowing what should be withheld. How best to create information pathways that are accessed only for the specific information needed?
“From a logical point of view, after descending into the train station, users are likely not looking for everything at the same time; they’re looking for the turnstiles, or they’re looking for the map,” explains Tochilovsky. “Conversely, when they’re trying to ascend a station to exit, designated signposts should guide them to the street from the bottom of a station. Regardless of a user’s end goal, Noorda and Vignelli believed that only the least amount of information needed should be presented at each step of the user’s journey.”
Although the designers had decoded the optimum user experience for the subway system, converting the theory into an actionable reality was an entirely different beast to tackle.
The Graphics Standards Manual
Unimark’s in-depth research into the user experience and the resulting graphic design considerations culminated in The New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual, which appeared in 1970.
A hefty volume of 182 oversized pages, held together by a loose-leaf binder, the Graphics Standards Manual was the de facto rulebook on anything and everything design-related for the entire subway system. From pre-measured typographical symbol layouts and spacing guides, to color-coded indexes and copy editing standards, the Manual provided everything a sign maker would need to produce and display signage throughout the entire subway network.
“For them, figuring out the right design solution was half of the equation,” says Tochilovsky. “The other half was making sure that the system implementing it was seamless, intelligent, and reproducible, while withstanding human error”.
One distinctive example demonstrates the level of thought put into the Manual: the pre-measured typographical system, with full-scale master artwork for each letter of the alphabet. Rather than depend on sign makers to determine the appropriate spacing between the letters of the station names, the designers embedded alignment marks against every letter, with an index to determine the width of the space between it and the preceding letter. The result is a flawless and cohesive typographical style that is recognizable across the entire subway system—from Columbus Circle to Union Square.
The designers also used the information from their years of exhaustive research, and included the equally impressive 8-level schematic, for placing signage that carefully followed the user’s journey through a subway station.
Whether you were a sign maker, or a passenger moving through a station during rush hour, Noorda and Vignelli had effectively predicted and designed your entire experience, down to the last detail.
Dot to Dot
The Graphics Standards Manual had the visual identity of the system covered, but to pull the entire experience together, an entirely different challenge remained: a map for efficiently navigating it.
Spearheaded by Vignelli, and considered to be one of the most iconic pieces in the history of graphic design, the official 1972 map of the New York subway system was given a mixed reception: adoration from the design community, and kickback from native New Yorkers, who were expecting a geographically correct map rather than a modernist schematic layout.
Vignelli wanted to make using the subway as seamless as possible—a process he called going from “dot to dot.” He chose to omit above-ground details altogether, in favor of an easy-to-read color-coded system, showing evenly-spaced stations that could be memorized by both native New Yorkers and tourists alike.
“For Vignelli, the map came down to a simple problem: knowing where you are and where you want to go,” explains Tochilovsky. “In the same context of the larger wayfinding system, a significant part of the map’s design strategy comes from withholding information that isn’t necessary, in an effort to make the experience of gaining the actual information that you do need much easier. The most likely scenario for the user is finding where you are on the line and counting the number of stops it takes to get to where you want to go. To Vignelli, this wasn’t a map of landscape; it was a system of logic”.
A Lesson for Today
As in almost any other large-scale urban design undertaking, today’s subway experience took shape over many decades, morphing through various forms along the way.
During the 1980s, the original Standard typeface was replaced by the now-infamous Helvetica, and the 1972 map has since been updated to reflect a more accurate above-ground geography. But Vignelli and Noorda’s original work to create a better user experience for millions holds a valuable lesson—even for today’s most discerning designers.
“Understanding what you’re working with—not just what something should look like—is a key factor when solving real problems; to get there, you need to ask a lot of questions,” explains Tochilovsky.
“In the case of Vignelli and the NYC Subway, the problem wasn’t about making a great looking visual system and gridded map for the design community—it was about effectively helping people navigate a complicated infrastructure by giving them the right amount of information when they needed it. To arrive at this point, he had to quantify all of the possibilities and consider all logic. Only then did he begin to think about how best to present this experience and make the user aware of the design.”
And if you’re one of the 5 million having the experience today, it might be a level of awareness that no longer requires thought.
Taking the subway? Just follow the signs.
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