Walking Through a World of Your Own Design

The creator of iconic subway maps, city signage, and corporate logos loves seeing his work everywhere. So does his “twin brother,” his ego.
  • Transcript


Question: How did you create your iconic 1970s New York City subway map?

Massimo Vignelli: Well, number one, we like to design things which we have done before.  So we have a challenge to make it better.  The other thing, all the maps which were done at the time before our map were naive to a certain extent, but we’re talking a different—they were trying to be half geographic, half schematic, and so on, not a very clear idea.  And so we started to took a precise very diagrammatic kind of an approach, a diagram based on a grade of 90 and 45 degrees, like the London map which was very 1931.  You know, a long time ago.  And we just did it.  Every line had a color at the time, every station had a dot, no dot, no station, it’s very simple.  But very simple however is a process of insisting, insisting, insisting until you get just the essentials.  And all the trashy things are gone.  And that is a process that is typical of our modus operandi, I mean what we do all that time sifting, sifting.  Actually, I’m not a designer, I’m a sifter.  I can sift everything, all the time.  My sift level lines keep shaking all the time for everything that is around.  And so that is the way the – then in 1979, they changed their nomenclatures, so the map that we had then was no good anymore for use.  And so recently we redesigned the map according to the new nomenclatures, so that’s what we have done and it’s kind of nice.  There’s so many museums I can’t believe it.  And I hope we will do something with it soon.  It’s a good map. 

But most of the maps today, they are done this way, subway maps I mean, around the world.  Paris has done a new one like this some time ago.  Berlin, you name it, every major city uses diagrammatic map.  It’s only New York, which is kind of special, it still has this sort of a hybrid between a map and a diagram, but not even a diagram and, not even a map, but however, the problem with the existing map is too much information it is 5 pounds into a 1 pound bag.  And no wonder it breaks.

Question: What other New York City signage have you created?

Massimo Vignelli: Well, I mean we designed the signs for the historical district, the historical streets you know.  And why we did that, you see again, you have to be aware of what is around.  For instance, we could have done a completely new and different sign, but that would have been stupid.  As a matter of fact somebody else did that kind of thing and I consider it a very stupid approach because then when it does it is who it adds to an already very busy clutter.  So instead we took the existing signs and just change the color.  You know, so it's not so expensive that way, but also doesn't add another layer to the already very busy urban clutter you know.  So the problem of clutter is a big one of course as a designer and sifting, sifting, we tried to sift out as much as possible.  And that kind of stuff.

Question: When you walk around New York, or the world, do you feel like you’ve designed the place?

Massimo Vignelli: Yeah.  You know, you have to know that, like every good designer, you’ll have a twin brother that is called ego.  And I go around with my ego all the time.  And you should see how happy he is when he goes around in a most far away kind of place and all of a sudden maybe a truck that comes by with a logo that you have designed, or a book is on the window of a store, or someplace has the furniture that you have designed, or the airline that brings you there has that.  So, it’s kind of funny.  Yes, it is a lot of fun. 

While it is a gratification, it’s a lifelong gratification.  But as I said, it’s from my ego; to keep my ego happy.  If the ego is not happy, you are in deep trouble, you know that?