amateur musings on information design

There’s been a lot of chatter around the design blogs about the NYC subway map. New York has what is arguably the most complex subway system in the world: 468 individual stops, not to mention all those different routes and schedules. Plus, this all runs beneath the New York City street grid, which is not crowded or confusing in any way. Oh, and the map needs to be useful for NYC’s many tourists.

The NYTimes has a nice little history of the subway map problems. In short, the MTA usually eschews the preferred world standard of 90 and 45 degree angles on a white background in favor of a geographically accurate overlay of the city. In the 1970s, Massimo Vignelli introduced a map that went the 90-45-white route, but since it included almost nothing of the aboveground city it proved massively unpopular, despite being easier to read. It was quickly replaced with a geographically accurate design. That brings us to Eddie Jabbour’s inspired pet project to get the best of both worlds. His map (in the comparison shots, current official map on the left, Jabbour’s project on the right) is 90-45 with a city overlay. It distorts geography to make the subway lines play nicely, but not as much as Vignelli’s map did. I particularly like that each individual route is given its own line, clustered together by color. The amount of information that needs to be presented in the NYC subway map is pretty close to ridiculous, and I think Jabbour’s version is the most readable.

If you couldn’t tell, I find the whole issue of information design and usability very interesting. Subway maps in particular are a perfect example of why this area of design is so necessary, important, and nuanced. Take Boston’s subway, for instance. In comparison to New York it’s an order of magnitude simpler. I’ve always liked the MBTA’s newest subway map, which was introduced a few years ago. Still, I have to wonder if we’d get more use out of it if, like New York’s map, it included more in the way of aboveground information. Though Boston’s transit system may appear so simple as to not warrant that level of attention, it turns into a real mess once you include the buses, and those bus maps are truly hideous to look upon (particularly the idiocy of a poorly drawn John Hancock Tower jutting up from a flat overhead map). A map that has a basic street grid, subway, and bus routes in one could be tremendously useful to Boston citizens and tourists alike. It might even get people to travel in the city more. Alas, such a project is way, way beyond my skills and free time.