A Tale of Two Maps

by Site Author

Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 8.34.43 AM

The map of the New York City subway system, above, is a replica by Michael Calcagno of a version created in 1969.

Compare that map to the one below, famously created by Massimo Vignelli in 1972.

Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 8.34.59 AM

Vignelli’s map is wrong in many ways. Central park is not a square, Manhattan isn’t actually shaped like that, et cetera.

But Vignelli argued that, even if his map was inaccurate relative to the old map, it was more useful. His map provided readers with what they needed to know. People looking at subway maps just need approximate directions, and Vignelli’s map, since it was easier to read, provided approximate directions more readily.

Vignelli’s map was seen as radical when it first appeared. And, in the end, New York city adopted a compromise. The maps that are distributed today use the same typeface that Vignelli promoted, Helvetica, and are simpler than the old maps from the 1960s, but not quite as simple as Vignelli’s map.

What’s interesting about all of this to me is that it demonstrates how wrong ideas can still be useful. Often in the social sciences, the goal is not to create a model that is correct, but rather a model that is useful. For instance, economic models of supply and demand are wrong. There’s no such thing as a demand curve in the real world, and individuals don’t think in the way that economic models assume. Yet economic models can still be useful, even if they are wrong. Models are metaphors in the way that Vignelli’s map was a metaphor. And metaphors are often very useful.