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Massimo Vignelli's enduring NYC subway legacy

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In honor of the legendary designer’s 86th birthday, a look at his iconic subway signage

Max Touhey

Today would have been famed Italian designer Massimo Vignelli’s 86th birthday, and though he’s known for many things—designing the Bloomingdale’s shopping bags; putting his stamp on the interiors of St. Peter’s Church, along with his wife Lella—perhaps his most enduring legacy is the signage found throughout the New York City subway system.

Together with designer Bob Noorda (the men both worked at the firm Unimark at the time), Vignelli introduced the typeface and design quirks found throughout the transit system, including the now-iconic color scheme used to denote the various subway lines. In 1970, their designs were collected in the New York City Transit Authority’s Graphic Standards Manual, which became a favorite of design nerds everywhere; it was reissued in 2014 to great acclaim.

Vignelli would later use that typeface in a 1972 map of the New York City subway, itself celebrating its 45th anniversary this year; alas, that didn’t go over quite as well. It was more of a diagram than a true map, with parks rendered in gray, rivers rendered in beige, and no mention of specific neighborhoods anywhere. When it debuted, commuters were not pleased, and it was quickly replaced.

In a 1990 interview, Vignelli had this to say about his failed design:

One of the problems they had in New York is that the people, they couldn't relate the geography with the station, with the lines, and they were confused by that. But it's just because they shouldn't. There were neighborhood maps in the subway stations, so really there's no reason why this map had to be literal——it could be completely abstract.

Nevertheless, the rest of his work—the colors, and the use of Helvetica throughout the system—has endured:

1979 New York City Subway Map #the_nycta_project #nyc #nycta #mta #nycsubway #transitmap

A photo posted by The NYCTA Project (@the_nycta_project) on

And eventually, as times and tastes changed, the MTA embraced the Vignelli map—now, the agency uses an updated, slightly cleaner version (no beige!) for its Weekender app, along with new subway literature. Maps given out to celebrate the opening of the Second Avenue subway utilized the Vignelli design:

Vignelli’s famous 1972 subway diagram has even made it onto merchandise, including mugs, mouse pads, T-shirts, and shower curtains:

For more about Vignelli, take a look at the primer our colleagues at have compiled—and below, check out some more Vignelli design porn: