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Locator Maps Re-envisioned

Every once in a while, when I’m feeling creatively stifled, I throw “Helvetica” into my digital video disc player. While the focus of the movie falls on type foundries and the development of different typefaces – there is one part that stands out as my favorite: Massimo Vignelli’s explanation of his 1972 New York Transit Subway Map.

A “recent” article by the New Yorker described the design as a “canonical piece of abstract graphic design.” It is this idea of abstraction in something so utilitarian that interests me. Vignelli made a very bold decision to scrap and/or alter the actual make-up of New York City and its bus line.  What was his reasoning?


About half of the graphics I have produced in the lab section thus far have been locator maps. I see the value in informing the public about road closings and race routes, but there is little to no wiggle room for creativity. Vignelli would certainly beg to differ.

There seems to be a very fine line between aesthetics and utilitarianism in graphics. In Vignelli’s mind, breaking the mold of what truly existed in reality to create a visual that portrayed natural order and clean lines was necessary to give New Yorkers something they could use.

But when is this execution appropriate? I would argue that a Missourian map showing a road closing by Reactor field doesn’t need the same attention that Vignelli gave to the his map. Or maybe it does – would more readers look at it and thus create more awareness of the event?

Over the summer, I was handed a special project through my internship at MU’s Campus Facilities. It was my duty to rebrand the free shuttle offered to students. New name, new logo, new everything. One piece of the marketing campaign was a new map. I kept revisiting this clip as the map was restructured over and over again. Myself and Zachary Wall came up with the following execution. This update incorporated more exact spatial relationships between routes as well as cleaner lines and a more pleasing visual aesthetic than its predecessor. However, I think we could have taken it even farther.

It’s just tough figuring out the best design for the appropriate assignment. When Joy Mayer used to teach news design at the Missourian, she would always ask me, “Why?” Why did I choose a thick stroke around the photos? Why did I chose this typeface for my art hed? It helped me enormously to understand content-driven design. After all – content is king.

Sometimes designers need to stay out of its way.

Sometimes it’s more fun to ask “why not?”



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