Responses by Felipe Memoria, design partner/cofounder, Work & Co
Background: We had an ambitious vision to build a new digital map for the New York MTA, or the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, that updates in real-time to help subway riders see service changes as they happen and better serve on-the-go commuters. Now live at map.mta.info, the MTA’s first Live Subway Map involved an eighteen-month collaboration between our team, the MTA and the Transit Innovation Partnership. We’re hoping to lay the foundation for transit systems around the world to adopt live maps that are easy to use and will thereby help encourage the use of public transportation.
Reasoning: Our thinking for the subway map was rooted in the ability to offer a lot of information in a streamlined way. We needed to display individual train lines versus trunk lines so that riders can see specific service changes that would impact that commute. We prioritized the capability for users to easily filter based on the train lines they personally use the most. We also anticipated the Live Subway Map would be used mostly on phones, so we spent time optimizing for mobile. At first, the notion of having to squeeze all of the information into a small mobile-phone sized screen was a big constraint. But luckily, the smaller canvas allowed us to merge geometry with geography, while using the ability to pinch lets us to be deliberate about the level of content that can be surfaced.
Challenges: Moving towards launch without endlessly adding to the product roadmap. But in some ways, the hardest part was deciding when we were ready for the beta launch. The Live Subway Map had to be released once it was robust enough to be worthy of always-very-discerning New Yorkers, but at the same time, leave enough room for feedback and dialogue. We also wanted to release it during the COVID-19 pandemic, in the hopes of helping power safer commutes for those who are currently using it, and to serve as a helpful tool for when they are returning into the system.
Favorite details: It’s a perfect example of design and engineering working hand-in-hand. We saw such tight collaboration between the designers and developers at Work & Co, just constantly pushing one another to reach a better outcome. It was also great to collaborate so closely with our clients and integrate MTA data. It powers the notion of a “live” map, one that redraws itself constantly. This functionality makes this product a leap ahead from previous maps.
Visual influences: Digital design is a relatively new medium, so we often look to the past—graphic design, architecture, industrial design—for inspiration. The original MTA printed diagrams and maps introduced by Unimark International and Michael Hertz Associates were foundational layers for this tool. But a big influence for us was a later version of the diagram called “The Weekender” by Massimo Vignelli, Beatriz Cifuentes and Yoshiki Waterhouse. We also referenced the many digital maps that are widely in use today.
Anything new: Although many of us at Work & Co are New Yorkers, we didn’t know how New Yorkers behave when it comes to public transportation. More importantly, we learned they don’t want to be told where to go and how to get there! New Yorkers take pride in knowing how to navigate the subways. Some of our original ideas for the digital tool were focused around just a single line or the time of day, but the MTA underscored how much people love maps and how proud they are to navigate the system. Maps will never go away.