DC Metro map makeover: Chat with the designer

Jun 07, 2011

Chat with Lance Wyman, the graphic artist that created the iconic DC Metro map, about being hired to give the graphic a facelift, how he came up with the current map, and more.

Related: After more than 30 years, Metro map is being redesigned by creator Lance Wyman

Thanks for joining us in this online chat. I'm Dana Hedgpeth, a reporter who covers Metro's rail and bus system. We spent some time with Lance Wyman, the designer of Metro's original map. He's being brought back to give the iconic map a makeover 35 years after he designed it. Ask questions of Metro's map maker and follow me on twitter -- @postmetrogirl.

Good Morning,

This is Lance. I look forward to you questions.


I read the really interesting feature this weekend on the development of the map and plans for updates, but it didn't answer a pretty obvious question-- since there have been updates made to the map over the years (new stations added etc.) were you involved in those updates, and did you grapple with the same challenges then? If not, why is this update so different? Thanks for your answer!

Yes, we were involved with adding new lines as those services came aboard. Part of that was developing the hatched line to make it clear which lines were in service.

How much does your design owe to Harry Beck's 1931 map of the London Underground? I'm not a graphic design expert, but Beck seems to be the grandfather of transit maps everywhere.

Very much. In fact one of the mandates was to approach the map as a diagram based on the London map. Calling Beck the grandfather is probably accurate.

Please correct me if I am wrong, but the current map is not to scale, or is it? I figured it looked easier to compress the stations into the space provided. If it is not scale, would it make sense to do so, or not? The reason why I ask if out of towners might look at an out of scale map and miscalculate how far it is to walk somewhere.

The map is a guide for sequence and overall context of the system. It is more an index than a topographical map. The neighborhood maps give the topographical info. Now the map can be a helpful index when translated to interactive media.

Will the colors be the same on the new map, or are you picking perhaps brighter colors? How does the eye react to the Metro map color scheme?

Color will be an important key on the new map. What is important on the map should be clearly visible and how the colors effectively code and interact with each other is a big consideration.

Kudos on your original cartogram (and for winning the redesign contract), but I must admit that I was a little dismayed when I read in the Post story that you don't live here and haven't ridden on the Metro for many years. Metrorail is a very different system than the NYC subway--in many way it's not even really the same system that its originators envisioned. What reassurances can you provide us that your design will accurately reflect Washington sensibilities and realities, rather than those of Manhattan?

It's probably easier to reflect sensibilities and realities of a city that isn't your hometown. The Washington Metro map is not as complicated as the Subway map here, there are many opportunities to make the Washington map very Washington in the best ways. I promise to give that aspect my best effort.

In the past 30 years, have you seen any significant changes or trends in how users navigate, read and understand graphic design and how has that effected your own work?

Yes - specifically - I have specialized in icon design and icon systems. Technology, especially personal computers, has helped us realize that icons, when designed and used properly, are great communication helpers when navigating the digital world. They can be an "everyones language".

Have you considered including the following rules on the new map?: Do not crowd by the doors. Stand on the right side of escalators. - It would be a great public service!

Helping the rider with those types of messages is important but I will be focused on the map.

Will the new map be more friendly to the colour blind?And more helpful to International travelers?

We will do our best. Two very important parts of the riding public.

I love the map - thanks for doing it. But I'm wondering whether there are any recurring complaints you ever hear about it? What are the biggest gaps between how you look at the map and how the public does? Are there are reactions that surprise you? Thanks.

As the station names have gotten longer over the years they become much more difficult to understand at a glance. That doesn't help.

With this new map, can we finally have an end to the obscenely long names like U Street/Cardozo/African American Civil War Memorial? And if we're sticking with names that identify what's actually at stations, let me make a suggestion: U Street/Ben's Chili Bowl.

I've just mentioned the long station names. As was intended in the design of the original map 40 years ago, the thought of station icons as well as names could give you an immediate clue as to important aspects of a station (historical, cultural, important landmark, etc.). The names could be short, the visual icon would communicate everyone's language. It would make the riding experience user friendly and help give a great city a visual index

Will you be changing the way that rush hour stations are denoted (from the existing call-out boxes for the red and yellow lines) to be more visually-apparent?

This is being studied

Will you include the purple line in your new rendition? If so, will you somehow denote that it is a different type of rail?

This is also being studied

The Huntington Station at the end of the Yellow Line was built with a collapsable wall for future extension of the Yellow Line. The extension of the Yellow Line would work wonders for the redevelopment of U.S. 1 and the improvement of traffic. Prince William County is also lobbying to extend the Blue Line. Likewise, it would vastly improve commutes and development possibilities in the Woodbridge area. Given that this last map lasted for 40 years and the next one will hopefully last that long, are you designing the new map to contemplate the extensions of the Yellow and Blue Lines?

Again, this is part of the mix of things that have to studied.

One of the biggest changes to the Metrorail system since your original design (in terms of wayfinding) has been the unfortunate explosion in the lengths of station names, driven by local politicians wanting to throw a bone to local neighborhoods and business owners. While I know that you can't actually change any station names on your own, how much meddling do you expect to receive from local officials who only care about their own pet issues, and is there anything you can do about it?

This is certainly an issue that is on the table. I think we all know that long names are often desired by station neighborhoods but it is also known that long names make the overall Metro map less effective. Whatever  the process, I hope the map can be helpful for the understanding of the overall Metro system.

I understand that the map rendering isn't to scale but I would love to see a little more spatial accuracy especially in the downtown area. When you're using the Metro map to describe locations, its kind of hard to explain to visitors that Farragut North isn't really parallel to U Street. Thanks!

This is a juggling act and I will do my best to address what you are describing and still keep the map a very clear diagram.

Hi Lance! Thanks for your amazing work, I'm from the midwest but have used the Metro while in DC and recall the maps being VERY user friendly :) What do you recommend for someone getting started in a career in Graphic Design? I am employed in the educational print industry, but I'm worried about the long term job prospects so have been taking additional computer design classes, but not sure how to go from production to creative...

Thanks for your comments. I think, in my experience the term user friendly is a good one to keep in mind. Whether it's print of digital it's important that what your are intending to communicate comes out the other end in a way that is understandible.

One of the maps in the Greater Greater Washington contest showed some bus lines along with the Metro map ... making it easier to understand how things connect and how to get where you want to go. Are you on board with that?

How to relate the train service to other city services without causing confusion is a very important aspect of what we are studying.

Were you influenced by the London Underground map?

Yes, I answered to that question earlier.

What is your take on representing part-time services? On one extreme, BART has solid, full-width lines on their map that represent service which only runs from 7AM to 7PM with no indication of the limitation outside the legend. NYC MTA uses dashed lines showing "part-time line extensions" that do not run the full distance of the route but just where the line extends during different periods. What do you foresee using for Metro?

This type of issue is part of out study

When will the updated map be released?

You will have to get that from Metro

I understand Metro plans to split the Blue line from Franconia/Springfield next year. Can the two lines (which is what they will be) have different colors?

This is one of the important issues for the new map. We are still exploring the best ways.

Do you still think its necessary to include rush hour lines?

We are studying that - if they are cler without making the map confusing they are helpful

I was wondering if you'd seen Greater Greater Washington's map design contest (http://mapcontest.greatergreaterwashington.org/) and how you felt about "rider-submitted" maps. Do you think they have a different sense of the system by riding it every day?

Yes I did see the results of the contest and there were many thoughtful and helpful ideas. Sometimes the everyday rider sees mostly the everyday aspects of the riding experience and misses some of the broader system requirements. I'd probably be guilty of that in New York as a frequent rider here.

The clarity of your original map is amazing. Over the years, with the lengthening station names, the map began to look cluttered. Obviously, this is not your fault, but the fault of our politicians who insist on branding/marketing every neighborhood within a 20 minute walk of the station. Other than getting the Metro board to adhere to the original station-naming policy (19 characters, I believe), what can be done about it? Any graphic solutions?

I've referenced this question earlier. The problem is being studied.

Did you speak Spanish when you went to work in Mexico? If not, did it affect your work there?

I did not speak Spanish when I first went to Mexico and I'm not that good now. My world of communication tips very much into the visual and that has been very helpful in my work. It's a quest for a way to communicate without using one specific language. I learned a lot by desiging the graphics for the Olympics.

Are you aware of the map-making contest that the Greater Greater Washington blog recently held? Several interesting and compelling designs were submitted. Will you look to others' suggestions for inspiration as you redesign the map to take into account the needs of riders?

Yes - the map at its best will try to work for everyone and suggestions are an important part of the process of getting there.

Is there a plan to create a digital map where commuters can see in real time where the trains are?

I don't know that now but that would be a good idea to look at .

Great story in the Post on Sunday. I enjoyed learning about you. In the new version of the map, can you clarify the Yellow Line extension to Fort Totten? It runs all the time EXCEPT rush hour. The current signage is very unclear. Thank you.

We are working on it

I first became aware of your work on a recent trip to Mexico City. Even though I'm not well-versed in design, I thought the icons for each station, and the way they indicated both the place and the transfer lines, was really striking, useful, and fun. The article mentioned that early thoughts of doing the same for DC were scrapped. Is there any chance of them being added in this redesign?

I would love to see station icons be a part of the DC map.

In what ways can we expect the new map design concept to depart from the current Metro map (or your more pure, modern, 70s design)? Can we expect a fresh take on the iconic map? Also, two things I despise about the current map are (a) the ticky-tacky white text boxes that explain rush-hour services, and (b) the way-too long station names. Do you have any thoughts on how to address these problems?

You bring up good points and we are considering them.

I know this might not be entirely at your discretion, but with all of the rerouting where trains are going (what would currently be blue taking the yellow line bridge and continuing on uptown etc), are new colors going to be added for those changes? It seems to me that having to many of the same color going different places will get pretty confusing, especially for out-of-towners.

You have a good handle on some of the basic issues. They are being explored.

Any way I can get a copy of one the older ones from a train?

I can't help you there. Maybe the web can help.

I'm sure every design process is different, but can you give us an idea of how you'll go about designing the new map? I wouldn't even know where to begin. Thanks!

We began at the beginning 40 years ago with the old map. That map as it has survived is the beginning now. If we can get another forty years out of it that will be great. Preserving and improving will definately be part of the process.

What other recognizable works have you created or plan to create in the the future?

To avoid taking time now, check out my website.

There seems to be indecision about affirming the Silver color or choosing another. Does this affect your work or will the design gracefully survive a last minute color change? What color would you prefer for the new branch line? Silver does seem to be in fashion, though I don't know why, but the original roll type destination signs for the 1000 series rail cars had Dulles Airport in white on a black background. And if we ever get 11 lines, as was once studied, we may be overstretching the color thing. But I suppose we'll all be dead before that happens.

Overstreching the color thing is always a problem. We will try not to do that.

The current map is great, I hope it doesn't change too drastically. Who decides what colors the new Dulles and split Blue/Orange services are going to get? Wouldn't some of the issues with the new map be resolved if the Blue and Orange Lines weren't being split between terminals so much?

The new Dulles line and additional services colors are key additions to the new map. I hope the final map will give you good answers, we are working on those issues.

It would be very helpful to encircle every station with a dotted circle at 1 mile radius to put things in a pedestrian context. Every station must be surrounded by a pedestrian friendly / functional context so the system functions as a horizontal elevator. Ridership should be symmetrical and revenue producing for many more hours per day.

Thanks for your suggestions

Have you seen the recent competition for a redesign for the metro map on Greater Greater Washington? What are your thoughts on Cameron Booth's map? I felt that it was a large improvement on the existing design considering all the changes since you created the map while still retaining the current look and feel.

I think Cameron did a good job, his was one of the first attempts at solving some of the problems that I had seen.

Hi Lance, Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Wondering if you're thinking about changing the font at all?

Helvetica was mandated for the first map, it most likely will remain a part of the new map. We are studying that.

How do you tackle the problem of long station names, and in your opinion, under what parameters would a longer station name be appropriate?

Parameters are being revisted by Metro. I am definately for shorter names, the shorter and clearer the better for the overall map.

What GIS and software packages do you predominately use for generating your cartographic work?

This is a moving target and I do my best to keep up with what works best for what I'm trying to accomplish.

Thank you all very much for your thoughtful and helpful questions. I hope my answers were on target. Thank you also for the positive comments on my work, that's always welcome.

Lance Wyman

In This Chat
Lance Wyman
Lance Wyman, 73, of New York designed the Metrorail system's map more than 30 years ago. Under a deal worth up to $50,000, the graphic designer has been hired to reinvent it. He'll have challenges, including adding on the new line to Dulles International Airport and integrating other changes to the map, without ruining its clean, classic look. Many Metro riders and officials at the transit agency are watching closely. Wyman is well known for designing symbols and logos for other spots in the District, including the National Zoo, the old Convention Center, the Library of Congress, and at kiosks maps along the National Mall.
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