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Rethinking the NYC subway map and mass transit guides around the world

Max Roberts talks to Metro about how different riders interpret maps, why he likes creating them and what he likes about the MTA's current subway map.

nyc subway map circles The NYC subway system mapped as concentric circles.
Credit: Maxwell J. Roberts

Max Roberts has never ridden New York City's subway — but he's thought about system's twists and turns more than most daily riders.

A 47-year-old psychology lecturer at the University of Essex in England, Roberts has designed more than 150 mass transit guides, including two rethinking the city's subway map.

One of the maps, completed by Roberts last month, is a friendlier take on the contentious, simple and modern 1972 map by Massimo Vignelli, who died this May. Another, released a year ago, presents the transit system's colorful lines as concentric circles.

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Roberts began exploring map design in 1999 but only began publicly publishing them in 2007. He spoke to Metro about how different riders interpret maps, why he likes creating them and what he likes about the MTA's current subway map.

Metro: Why are you interested in map design?

max roberts maps Max Roberts designs mass transit maps.
Credit: Elizabeth Newton

Roberts: My speciality in psychology, I'm interested in intelligence testing, so how difference people can cope with all the different information in all the world. I'm also interested in problem solving, reasoning skills, so how people respond to information being presented to them in different ways. In parallel, I've always had an interest in maps. I find them fascinating and I collect them. I began to realize that I wasn't very happy with the maps I was collecting — I didn't like the newer designs as much as the older designs. I thought I'd have a go and see if I could improve them at all. That socially gradually merged with my interests in psychology and the more I practiced the more I tried to understand how the shape of maps influences how easy they are to use and how people respond to them.

Your NYC subway maps are diagram maps — what are those trying to accomplish?

It's trying to take a complex world and turn it into simple straight lines. But a lot of diagram maps take a complex world and they turn it into zig-zags instead.

That's why you tried the concentric circle map on the London Underground?

I'd been experimenting with London maps for a long time and realizing you're never going to get rid of all the zig-zags so I thought, let's just smooth them away and turn them into gentle curves. And that split people in half: half of people loved it, half of people absolutely hated it and that fueled my interest as to why a thing as simple as a map could split people in half like that and generate such strong emotions.

nyc subway map concentric circle The NYC subway system mapped as concentric circles.
Credit: Maxwell J. Roberts

A lot of New Yorkers disliked the 1972 subway map by Vignelli — which smoothed out routes into 45- or 90-degree angles — and it lasted only seven years. What do you think of it?

The original Vignelli from '72 is a beautiful, organized design that's let down by a disorganized color scheme. There were a few geographical glitches on it, which upset a few people. The overall geographical shape's failings have been exaggerated.

You changed the water to blue — how else did you alter it?

I've worked into the Vignelli style map with experimental angles that I thought would suit New York better, just trying to get it into a better shape to make it less geographically upsetting to people who've got a certain tolerance of that.

You changed the water to blue — how else did you alter it?

I've worked into the Vignelli style map with experimental angles that I thought would suit New York better, just trying to get it into a better shape to make it less geographically upsetting to people who've got a certain tolerance of this.

Massimo Vignelli subway map 1972 new version A modified version of the 1972 NYC subway map by Massimo Vignelli.
Credit: Maxwell J. Roberts

How can you tell who will tolerate diagram maps?

People differ in how much they can cope with geographical distortion. There's something I like to call the 4/5/6 test. The Lexington Avenue lines, when they go through Grand Central Station, they actually flip from Lexington Avenue to Park Avenue. Vignelli shows that on all his maps as a straight line, and that really upsets some people. People who have a very low tolerance for geographical distortion hate that — they want to see the line zig zag there. … If you can cope with a little geographical distortion like that — as simple as a line flipping streets, then there's a lot of scope for creating a clearer, cleaner, New York subway map if you choose the right angles.

What do you think of current design?

The more I look at that map, the less I like it. It's supposed to give an impression of geographical accuracy but the more you look at it the more you realize just how much distortion is there. … They've made Manhattan so fat that it looks as though it's worth getting the subway from 14th Street Union Square to where the L meets the blue lines. It's not a good map for helping you decide whether to take a journey or not.

Have you ever ridden the New York City subway?

I've never been to New York.

Why were you interested in mapping the subway then?

It's one of the great systems. If you design maps, you can't ignore the New York subway map. You've got to use it and try to understand it.

Check out some more of Roberts' mass transit map designs below:


Follow Anna Sanders on Twitter @AnnaESanders

 
 
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