Blue Pencil no. 7C—Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The (Mostly) True Story

There has been a lot of controversy over who deserves credit for the design of the 1979 subway map. In Helvetica and the New York City Subway System I tried to avoid getting tangled up in the fight between Michael Hertz and John Tauranac, both of whom were very generous in providing me with material and information about developments in the sign system. The sign system, not the map, was my primary interest at the time.

As someone who has worked as a graphic designer but who has training as a historian I am acutely aware of the problems inherent in assigning credit to collaborative projects. It is common in the graphic design world to credit the head of a studio with the design of a project even though it is common knowledge that his/her employees were essential to its execution and completion. For example, see the crucial roles played by Tom Carnase, Tony DiSpigna, Alan Peckolick and others in the oeuvre of the various Herb Lubalin studios that have often gone unacknowledged. It is also common in the political and business worlds to label the products of a commission or committee after the chairman of the group. For instance, the Seabury Commission, the Kefauver Committee, the Warren Commission, the Kerner Commission and so on. I thus decided to designate the 1979 map as the Tauranac-Hertz map (see text p. 80 and footnote 56, p. 75).

The map is reproduced on p. 71 as fig. 134 with the caption: “New York City Subway Map, 1979. Poster version. Conceived by John Tauranac; designed and executed by Michael Hertz Associates.” This phrasing, as well as the joint designation Tauranac-Hertz with Tauranac listed first, has upset Michael Hertz who believes he deserves sole credit or at least the greater part for the map’s design. In talking to Arline Bronzaft recently, the psychologist who played an instrumental role in convincing the MTA to replace the 1972 Vignelli subway map with a more geographic one, and in seeing various documents in her possession I have come to agree with him. While Tauranac played a vital role in the development of the map he neither conceived of it nor did he design it.

The impetus for a new map began with the work of Stephen B. Dobrow, Bronzaft and Tim O’Hanlon who field-tested the Vignelli map in 1972 and 1973. The results of their tests led to the formation in 1976 of the Subway Map Committee under the chairmanship of Fred Wilkinson, Director of Passenger Services. The members of the committee were John Tauranac (MTA), Dean McChesney (MTA), Kevin Doherty (MTA), Leonard Ingalls (NYCTA), Alex Friedlander (NYCTA), Joe Korman (NYCTA), Al Neumann (NYCTA), Michael Bosniak (NYCTA), Arline Bronzaft (Associate Professor, Lehman College), Stephen B. Dobrow (Committee for Better Transit), Jon Schacter (Committe for Better Transit) and Hugh A. Dunne (Electric Railroader’s Association, Inc.). By the time the committe had publicly released its first iteration of the new map in the Spring of 1978 Tauranac had replaced Wilkinson as the chairman.

The prototype map that was displayed at the Cityana Gallery was described at the time as “executed by Michael Hertz Associates” who included Nobu Siriasi, Peter Joseph, Audrey Sclater and Barbara McKee. Overall credit for the map was given to “the Marketing Department of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.” When the revised map—with color-coding replacing the original red lines—was announced June 24, 1979 the MTA press releases (News #86 and #87) did not mention any individual members of the committe nor did it give credit to anyone for the execution of the map. It simply said, “The overall map program, including the redesignation of subway station decals and car destination curtains to conform with the new color-coding, and the poster announcing the new system, was developed by the MTA and the New York City Transit Authority with input from community, government and other interested groups.” That left the door open for the competing claims of authorship that exist today.

A full accounting of the development of the 1979 map (and the 1972 map as well) is being prepared by Peter B. Lloyd as part of his general history of New York City subway maps scheduled for publication in 2011. Based on the notes that he has shared with me in advance I feel confident that Peter will provide the definitive word on who deserves what degree of credit for what aspect of the 1979 map.