If you’re a New Yorker, you are familiar with the work and aesthetics of late graphic designer Massimo Vignelli, whether you’re aware of this or not. In 1972, Vignelli changed the branding of the New York City subway map through his trademark clean lines and bold colors.
Born in Milan, Italy in 1931, Vignelli moved to New York in the mid-1960s and founded Vignelli Associates with his wife, Lella, in 1971. Massimo, probably more than anyone else, gets the credit for introducing a European Modernist point of view to American graphic design. Vignelli, who has been called the “grandfather of graphic design,” believed in design that was “visually powerful, intellectually elegant, and above all, timeless.”
While his NYC subway map was similar to Harry Beck’s 1933 map of the London Underground in that it was abstract, yet simple and clear, a lot of people were bothered by the fact that it wasn’t completely geographically accurate. Vignelli, a self-described ‘information architect,’ stated that his creation was intended to be a diagrammatic map of the subway system, not a geographical map of the city: “I’m going, we’re all going, from Point A to Point B. How we get there is the conductor’s problem, not mine.”
In 1979, it was replaced by a map that was more literal, but much more difficult to navigate due to the overload of information and lack of hierarchy. Since then, the map has been revised several times, although Vignelli’s remains the most modern.
Ultimately, Vignelli’s design has stood the test of time. In 2011, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority brought Vignelli back to develop the Weekender, an interactive map based on his original design that shows changes in weekend subway service. Additionally, his original map is still celebrated by many, and the Graphics Standards Manual that he developed for the MTA still serves as the basis of today’s standards. Vignelli’s use of the Swiss typeface Helvetica for the subway system is just one example of how he stayed true to his principles of clarity of purpose and elegance.
Vignelli passed away in 2014, at age 83, in his Manhattan home. While he is perhaps best known for his iconic subway map for the MTA, other notable clients of his included American Airlines, IBM, Ford, and Bloomingdale’s and he worked on design projects ranging from signage to furniture to interiors. Vignelli’s overall mantra was, “If you can design one thing, you can design everything.”