The story of a map – Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 NYC Subway Map

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —May 14, 2007
Filed in Anecdotes

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Imagine if you could get people to talk on camera about their achievements and mistakes. The result could be a powerful, especially if you use these stories to get people talking. Here’s a tiny example on a topic dear to my heart: how to convey complex information simply. In this clip Massimo Vignelli talks about his 1972 information design masterpiece, the New York City Subway map. There are a couple of things I noticed in this four minute video, which is an out-take for the documentary Helvetica.

  • the actual map was a powerful reminder device
  • enough time had elapsed for Massimo to be comfortable to talk about his mistakes (just one) – mind you, you could imagine his self confidence soaring
  • the beauty of the map comes from knowing what to leave out–and if Massimo could do it again he would have left out even more

Mr Vignelli was inspired by Henry Beck’s 1933 legendary map of the London Underground. You can take a look at London’s current versions here. Michael Bierut has written an essay called Mr Vignelli’s Map which you might enjoy.

Thanks to 37 Signals for the pointer

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About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. avi says:

    1. It’s the London map…
    2. The map is a fantastic example for “a picture [flowchart, etc.] is worth a thousand words.

  2. Matthew Rees says:

    I was looking forward to the NYC map but both links in the post are to the London Tube map 🙁
    b.t.w. I used to be at IBM with Dave Snowden too but before the Cynefin stuff. At that time he had just joined as part of the Data Sciences acquisition and I did some work on the on-boarding of their consultants.

  3. Shawn says:

    I had butter fingers but you now can check out the New York map. Thanks for pointing out the error.

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