If you live in New York City or Washington, D.C., you can thank Massimo Vignelli for at least part of your well-designed urban experiences. As the designer behind the wayfinding systems for both the New York City Subway and Washington D.C. Metro, you’ve undoubtedly referenced his work, perhaps in a mild state of panic when when the R train decides to halt service and drop you off at an unfamiliar stop.
Vignelli is celebrated for his rational, Helvetica-heavy signage—less so for his maps. In 1972, the MTA unveiled a new map designed by Vignelli, only to replace its geometric lines with a different, easier-to-read map in 1979. That wasn’t the last transit map Vignelli designed, though.
Jennifer Whitlock, the sole archivist at the Vignelli Center for Design Studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology, recently uncovered a trove of speculative maps that Vignelli designed for Washington, D.C.’s transit authority around 1973, and they are amazing. Like his work for the NYC subway, these graphical gems rely on abstract shapes and bold colors to create a sense of direction.
The mockups show lines of color that snake along the page and intersect at 90 degree angles. Other maps are designed as circles whose meaning are, frankly, incredibly hard to parse. Vignelli’s NYC map, while beautiful, suffered similarly from its abstract form. And fair enough. In both cases, it’s easy to see why hoards of tourists might be confused by the maps’ graphical form, but they sure are nice to look at.