The New York Subway Map Debate: new light thrown on a pivotal moment in design history

Following the discovery of a long-lost audio recording, publisher Standards Manual’s latest release transcribes the heated 1978 debate between designer Massimo Vignelli and cartographer John Tauranac.

Date
18 May 2021
Reading Time
2 minute read

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In 1978 there was a highly contentious and heated public debate between designer Massimo Vignelli and cartographer John Tauranac over the future of the New York Subway Map. At the time, Vignelli was behind the current version of the map, his design first published by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in 1972 and still today lauded as a modernist masterpiece. In contradiction, the MTA Subway Map Committee, chaired by John Tauranac, disagreed and said it was geographically inaccurate. In 1979, the MTA published a new design by Michael Hertz, which is still in use today – albeit with some stylistic updates and additions – but before that, Vignelli and Tauranac had it out in a debate at the Cooper Union.

The contents of that discussion had until recently been based on anecdotal recollections from the people in the room, but then filmmaker and design historian Gary Hustwit – known for his design documentaries such as Helvetica, Rams, Objectified and Urbanized – got his hands on the long-lost audio recording. Aiming to lay bare the full debate and its aftermath, Hustwit has used the recording to create a new book, published by Standards Manual, which comprises the full transcript of the debate and discussions that followed the seminal event. It also features never-before-seen photographs of the evening, taken by Stan Ries, and a foreword by none other than Paula Scher.

The book promises to tell this legendary story in minute detail, which Hustwit holds up as a symbol of the enduring tussle of the creative/client relationship. The filmmaker says on his website, announcing the book, that it “opens a hyper-specific window into a moment in New York design history and the eternal battle between form and content”.

The New York Subway Map Debate is available to pre-order via Standards Manual.

GalleryGary Hustwit: The New York Subway Map Debate, published by Standards Manual, photographs by Stan Ries (Copyright © Gary Hustwit, 2021)

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Gary Hustwit: The New York Subway Map Debate, published by Standards Manual, photographs by Stan Ries (Copyright © Gary Hustwit, 2021)

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About the Author

Jenny Brewer

After five years as It’s Nice That’s news editor, Jenny became online editor in June 2021, now overseeing the website’s daily editorial output. Contact her with stories, pitches and tips relating to the creative industries on jb@itsnicethat.com.

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