Best of Design:Vignelli Transportation

Explore transportation design by designer Massimo Vignelli through his own words, including the New York Subway and the Washington DC Metro.

By Vignelli Center for Design Studies

New York City Transit Authority Subway signage New York City Transit Authority Subway signage (1970) by Vignelli, MassimoVignelli Center for Design Studies

"Despite the horrors of the bureaucratic process involved in the development of a transportation design program, it is highly rewarding to design a better graphic system affecting millions of people daily. This is why we have been involved with such projects as the New York Subway and the Washington Metro."

Washington DC Metro signage for Rhode Island Ave (1976) by Vignelli, MassimoVignelli Center for Design Studies

"To design transportation graphics means mostly to convey the information at the point of decision –– never before, never after. How the information is conveyed is a matter of interpretation, but even then there are quite precise rules for legibility, distance, and size of type."

New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual (1970) by Vignelli, MassimoVignelli Center for Design Studies

New York Transit Authority Transportation Graphic Program, 1966

"The New York Subway is the oldest and largest complex network of mass transit in the world. It is a by-product of the merging of three independent railroads, which explains, in part, the lack of unification throughout the system. All considered, it works remarkably well."

New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual (1970) by Vignelli, MassimoVignelli Center for Design Studies

"In 1966, we (as Unimark International) were asked to design a graphic system for the subway signs. Bob Noorda, a partner at that time, made a meticulous analysis of the traffic flow in several stations to determine the points of decision and the nature of the information to be conveyed."

New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual (1970) by Vignelli, MassimoVignelli Center for Design Studies

"This provided us with the background necessary for proceeding to the next step, the design of the graphic sign system. There were four categories of signs:

1. Line identification
2. Directional messages
3. Informational messages
4. Station identification."

New York Subways by Vignelli, MassimoVignelli Center for Design Studies

"Previously, signs had been made to order. Ours were designed to be prefabricate and assembled like moveable type to form sentences––an incredibly easy way to solve a problem for a program characterized by inefficiency and as old as the subway itself. Alas, bureaucratic crudeness and unskilled management and labor hindered the implementation of the program as specified by our very accurate manual."

New York City Transit Authority Subway signage New York City Transit Authority Subway signage (1970) by Vignelli, MassimoVignelli Center for Design Studies

"Our project for the New York Subway was based on a series of modular elements carrying different hierarchies of information, assembled at the point of decision to form the appropriate message. Although the implementation suffered the damages of other inputs, it is still in use."

Design: Vignelli exhibition, Rochester, NY. Transportation Design (2010) by Vignelli, LellaVignelli Center for Design Studies

New York Subway Map, 1970

"Following the system signs, we were asked to design a new map for the New York subway. The design was organized on a 45-degree and 90-degree angled grid in which lines and land followed the basic structure. Every line had a color. Every stop had a dot. Every station is listed. A dot on the line meant that the train would stop at that station. No dot, no stop––simple."

New York Subway Guide New York Subway Guide (1972) by Vignelli, MassimoVignelli Center for Design Studies

"The map resulted in a beautiful design. Unfortunately, it was replaced in 1979 with a more conventional design."

Design: Vignelli exhibition, Rochester, NY. Transportation Design (2010) by Vignelli, LellaVignelli Center for Design Studies

In 2008, Men's Vogue invited Massimo Vignelli to redesign the map and this theoretical design was published. This new design piqued the interest of the MTA. You can see a variation of this map in use by the NYC Subway today.

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Manual of Graphic Standards Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Manual of Graphic Standards (1970) by Vignelli, MassimoVignelli Center for Design Studies

Washington Metro Transportation Graphic Program, 1968

"The architect of the Washington Metro is Harry Weese. When he asked us to design the signage for his majestic subway stations, he specified that he did not want anything to be attached to the walls or to interfere with the architectural statement..."

Washington Metro by Vignelli, MassimoVignelli Center for Design Studies

"...so we decided to make use of some freestanding outdoor pylons inside the station platforms: one element only, at the point of need, to carry all the required information."

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Manual of Graphic Standards Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Manual of Graphic Standards (1970) by Vignelli, MassimoVignelli Center for Design Studies

"The whole system was so well designed that there was very little need for graphics."

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Manual of Graphic Standards Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Manual of Graphic Standards (1970) by Vignelli, MassimoVignelli Center for Design Studies

"However, someone finally found a way to clutter it with redundant signs."

Washington DC Metro signage for Metro Center (1976) by Vignelli, MassimoVignelli Center for Design Studies

"Tremendous discipline is required to implement and protect a mass-transportation sign system, and very few cities seem to have the ability to overcome a laissez-faire attitude."

Credits: Story

Thank you to Massimo and Lella Vignelli for having the vision to preserve such a rich and complete archive of your design and for giving it to the world for inspiration.


The quoted text and artifacts featured here are part of the "Design: Vignelli" exhibition on view at the Vignelli Center for Design Studies. The exhibition was designed, written, and curated by Lella and Massimo Vignelli. It is the last of their exhibition designs still open to the public.


This virtual exhibition was created by Jennifer Whitlock, Archivist at the Vignelli Center for Design Studies. Over the course of three years, she digitized nearly every artifact, wrote metadata descriptions, and curated this exhibition.


And to the student Archives Assistants at the Vignelli Center for Design Studies who helped with photographing the galleries, gathering artifacts, transcribing the gallery text, scanning, and moral support. Thank you, Alexandra Serpikov, Emily Sharp, Claire Popoli, Leah Green, and Carmen Lopez.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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