The Great New York Subway Map Guides
Young Readers to Graphic Design
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
WNW Member Emiliano Ponzi was sitting in MoMA's Associate Publisher's office pitching one project when the conversation shifted. They got to talking about Massimo Vignelli's celebrated 1972 subway map, and the early stages of a very different project had begun. Two years passed from that first meeting to the release of The Great New York Subway Map, written and illustrated by Emiliano Ponzi.
In our interview below, the Milan-based illustrator and author lauds the support he received from MoMA as well as the New York Transit Museum, who gave him access to their archives. He also discusses the decision and challenges of creating a work whose intended audience is both children and the graphic design community. Design is something that informs the world around us; we engage with it everywhere, even if we don't comprehend that unifying word until later on in life. What Emiliano and MoMA have created is not just a picture book but a reminder of the educational benefits of design, from learning how your surroundings function at a young age to recognizing the humanity behind design decisions.
Buy The Great New York Subway Map here.
What do you think it was about Massimo Vignelli that made him such a legendary graphic designer?
Behind his talent as a professional and person, I believe that he had a vision about what good design needed to be and he stuck to it. He wrote all his rules in a book, The Vignelli Canon. It’s very interesting to see how he saw himself as a problem-solver with the responsibility to design what people needed, not just what they wanted. I like the fact that an “educational” aspect was a constant in his body of work. It was very clear to him that there wasn’t any other way to create graphics, designs, and products; his minimalistic approach directly challenged visual disorder and vulgarity.
What are some of the main takeaways from his career and approach that you apply to your own practice?
Some of his quotes have become mantras for me: the concept of timelessness (“We like Design that is clear, simple and enduring. . . . We feel the moral imperative of designing things that will last for a long time.”), of Discipline (“There is no room for sloppiness, for carelessness . . . Discipline is a set of self-imposed rules, parameters within which we operate. . . Discipline is also an attitude that provides us with the capacity of controlling our creative work”) and his quote about design seen as syntactically consistent (every detail must be consistent because “God is in the details.”)
How did you come to illustrate this book about his “Great New York Subway Map”?
I was in MoMA’s Associate Publisher’s office to pitch a very different project that was ultimately discarded when we came up with the idea of a book about Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 subway map. I designed a couple of illustrations as tests and provided storytelling options. We first decided to display different Vignelli designs as the thread to share his story and his professional ideas. Only later did we decide to focus on his map design, which was very different from the previous versions in both intention and final outcome. Two years passed from our first meeting to the book publishing because projects like this require many level of edit and feedbacks.
How did the New York Transit Museum and MoMA join forces to help to bring this project to life?
They supported me by giving me access to the Transit Museum archives, an amazing place to find a massive quantity of materials, from old photos to historical maps and posters. They organized activities and meetings at the NY Transit Museum and at the MoMA store, and one panel for adults in the theater at MoMA with two amazing guests: Peter B. Lloyd and Nicholas Blechman. Let me add that having a conference in one of the most important museums in the world was really an honor.
What considerations went into making this book appeal to young readers as well as professional graphic designers? Was it difficult to strike that balance?
This series of picture books is meant to explain to children, in the first place, and then to everyone else, the work of artists, architects, and designers who left a mark in history.
My task was to work on a topic that's sensitive for every creative mind: how to get from chaos to order. I had to create a story that took the reader from the first stage—an intuition—to the final one—the creation of an actual product.
The most challenging aspect was to combine visual metaphors based on my personal idea of good design (very close to Vignelli’s), Massimo Vignelli’s statements, and real facts in the story’s timeline. My metaphors needed to be visually and conceptually strong to be self-explanatory and needed to be understood universally by children and the graphic design community.
It seems as though design, while a fundamental and omnipresent reality that informs a young person’s world, is not named as "design" until much later on. Why do you think that is and what do you think the benefits would be if people were properly introduced to design at an earlier age?
It’s a fundamental rule of the MoMA series for children not to celebrate or push any kind of superhuman culture. So we tried to show that Massimo wasn’t a lonely genius, often mentioning “me and my studio” or “we,” in a way to make clear that he was a brilliant designer but that he had people around him. We also decided to reveal his name at the end of the book, which was also a twist useful in terms of storytelling. Through these stories children can learn and understand that there are steps to follow in order to achieve any kind of result; even the challenge that looks impossible at first can be accomplished.
What were some other challenges and breakthroughs you encountered with this project?
I altered my style, giving myself some rules I wanted to respect. I worked with a muted color palette, using a chromatic dominant in every illustration, plus some colors taken from the subway lines. I also shaped everything by the use of shadows, and net blocks of dark color that designated people and objects.
If you could honor another graphic designer on a future project, who would it be and why?
This is such an important question to answer because there are so many great people around that I’m going to put it this way: In 40–50 years I hope someone will honor me with a similar project :)