The 1979 New York City Subway Map: A Question of Authorship, Part I


Thanks for your posting on the 1979 subway map, which focuses attention on the difficult question of authorship.

A subway map comprises several connected elements, which may have resulted from distinct design decisions, by different individuals or voted by a committee. The 1979 MTA map was produced by a committee of 12 people plus 3 staff at Michael Hertz Associates, working for almost 3.5 years (Nov 1975 to Jun 1979). During this time the chair changed (Fred Wilkinson to John Tauranac), several prototypes were produced and rejected; and the MTA fundamentally changed the terms of reference by deciding that it would, after all, pay for the changes of signage that would ensue from a change of color-coding of subway routes — thereby enabling a major shift of map design from route-coloring to trunk-coloring. The notion that one person had a ‘big vision’ and everything else fell into place without needing further creative design activity would be mistaken.

The problem is exacerbated by the lack of detailed minutes and other documentation and the fading of memories of committee members over the intervening 35 years. The best that one can do is to sketch a plausible story based on fragments of documentation and triangulate different memories. This is what I have been doing in my spare time for the past few years. The best that I can come up with is an enumeration of design elements and a reasonable account of by whom, when, how, and why each decision was taken.

Another complexifying factor is the distinction between ‘cartographic design’ and ‘graphic design’. Some decisions have to do with the business purpose of the map, such as whether or not to include commuter lines (LIRR, ConRail, Amtrak). Other decisions have to do with the graphical representation, such as what set of colors to apply to the subway routes. So, when you write of who ‘designed’ the map, I fear that this conflates two different questions about the cartographic design and the graphic design. (It seems that within the design profession, a ‘client’ specifies the ‘requirements’ that a product must meet; and the ‘designer’ then designs a product that in some elegant and efficient way fulfils those requirements. In the development of the 1979 map, the MTA clearly had a role as a client specifying very high level requirements. But the committee straddled both roles of elaborating the detailed requirements as well as taking some of the design decisions.) In broad terms, the cartographic design was done collectively by the committee (led by Tauranac) and the graphic design was done by Michael Hertz Associates (led by Hertz). But the boundaries were blurred: the committee not only gave direction as to the cartographic design that was to be executed, but also gave specific instructions on graphical details (e.g. it is minuted that the use of London-style transfer symbols was stipulated by Tauranac). On the other hand, Mike Hertz himself was on the committee and took part in its discussions and votes. And occasionally map design ideas would arise from the graphic design team: for example, Siraisi came up with a way to express the peak-hour express trains, which is really an addition to the cartographic design. All of which suggests to me that it is not possible to make a clear distinction between the cartographic design and the graphic design of the 1979 MTA map.

As you kindly mentioned, I am writing a book on the history of the Subway Map, which (God willing) will be finished next year. Meanwhile the positive reception (and reprint!) of your magnificent book on the subway signage is an encouragement to me to keep on with this project in the belief that there may be an audience for it.

Peter B Lloyd