Concerning the Beauty of Subway Maps

Originally published in Round

What you are looking at right now is a representation of the Tokyo subway system. Millions of people use this everyday to work their way through the city and several different independent subway companies (there’s a key at the bottom to help you figure out which lines are run by which companies and thus which transfers require a new fare). If this is your first time looking at it most likely you are experiencing some combination of incomprehension and anxiety, maybe even fear. This is natural. But relax: you are several thousand miles away from this intimidatingly complex system – will not have to deal with it anytime in the near future, if ever – and you can rest comfortably on the outside and instead appreciate the grace of the lines and the interplay of the colors. You can take in the map as art.

I want you to think about the last time you looked at a subway map. I don’t mean the last time you focused in on Point A and figured out the least number of connections to Point B, I mean the last time – usually the first time you see a new map – that you stood before it, taking in the overall image and the mysteries it presents without shattering the surface to capture the pertinent information beneath.

Subway systems of major international cities reach a level of complexity that goes beyond casual knowledge, and their maps reach similar levels with respect to casual reference. You can’t just glance at the Tokyo map and figure out your destination. It takes a commitment – you have to focus in and concentrate. I’m not talking just any transit system maps. If you live in Baltimore it’s kind of hard to get lost in the complexity and beauty inherent therein when there is only one line.

The information needs to reach a critical mass. It needs to be teetering at the point of overload, where anymore subway lines, anymore congestion, would cause the map to stop being of any use to anyone and totally enter the realm of abstract art.

Let’s look at another one, shall we?

The London Tube map is the grandaddy of the current subway map aesthetic – all train lines running at 45 and 90 degree angles, eschewing geographical accuracy in favor of an approach closer to that of a schematic diagram. Created by Harry Beck in 1931, it threw out the notion that a subway map had to be constrained to the realities of the world above it in favor of a Modernist sensibility. Beck freed mapmakers to create beautiful, colorful, harmonious works of art.

The New York City transit system is second to London in terms of length, but has 100 more station stops. The current map isn’t much good for our purposes. The most recent mapmaker, John Tauranac, realized that a system as complex and wide stretching as New York’s needed to be represented along with a nod to the corresponding physical world so that the casual subway rider (you and I) would not just give up all hope when we happen to be confronted with said map and are trying to figure out how to get from Coney Island to Harlem. The map is almost actively working to suck you in and have you figure it out, engaging you as a friend rather than challenging you as art.

This was not always the case. We need only go back to 1972 to see the NYC subway map at its peak of obfuscation and beauty. Behold Massimo Vignelli’s New York.

It lasted only seven years before being dismissed as impractical and incomprehensible (as the city itself runs on a fairly consistent grid, the proportional anomalies were glaring and unappreciated), but remains a favorite among designers and subway buffs. Practical, no. But very beautiful, for precisely that reason.

Compare this to the other extreme, a map that is painstakingly geographically accurate and yet still manages to inspire a weird kind of anxiety by showing the system for the sprawling disaster it is.

When compared with these, the current map is almost a miracle of information design – but sadly falls short in the area of emotional impact. It sacrifices a beauty and mystery for clarity and accessibility, which maybe it should. Ultimately these maps are all meant to function as guides rather than intricate works of art. But in a world where art can be and is found in everything we see and do, why should subway maps not strive for the same?






Jason Brennan’s New York City


*I’ve been informed that this map is actually 1) out of date and 2) for trains and trams, in addition to the subway lines. But whatever, it’s way cooler than the new subway map they have

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