The Best & Worst Subway Map Designs From Around the World

September 29, 2015
Aaron Polmeer

By [email protected] (Lindsay Kolowich)

If you were to design a subway map, what would you design for: geographical precision or visual clarity? Is it better for a map to accurately represent the geography at street level, or for it to be abstract and easy-to-understand?

In 1972, Massimo Vignelli chose the latter — visual clarity — when he designed a map of the New York City subway system. To Vignelli, the only way to make the crazy twists and turns of the city’s subway lines comprehendible to the public would be to, well … straighten them out.

So he redesigned the map so that all the lines ran either vertically or horizontally. He also made Central Park — normally a rectangle — into a square. That’s Vignelli’s map on the left:

Image Credit: 99designs

The New Yorker called it “a nearly canonical piece of abstract graphic design.” But many people focused on the “abstract” part of that description, and it didn’t sit will with them. While Vignelli’s map was easier for people to navigate, it wasn’t an accurate portrayal of the geography. In 1979, it was replaced with a more geographically accurate map — the one on the right.

Was that the right decision? In 2013, a team of MIT researchers used the Boston subway map to study how the human visual system collects information. They found that “a map need not stay geographically faithful to be visually useful. In certain real-world applications, this understanding might be critical; designing in-car navigation maps that take peripheral vision into account could potentially save lives.”

There are dozens of subway systems around the world, illustrated both by maps that are confusing but geographically sound, and maps that are abstract but more soothing to the eye. Let’s take a look at some of the world’s subway map designs and see how they differ in complexity, abstraction, and style — and what makes some designs better than others.

The Best Subway Maps in the World

1) London, England

London’s subway map is similar to Vignelli’s for New York City: It abstracts the city into lines that are only vertical, horizontal, or at 45-degree angles. London’s subway system is extremely complex, and while this map may be difficult to read at a small size and employs a complicated color code, it provides a coherent overview.

Image Credit:

Compare the subway map above with geographically correct subway routes below:

Image Credit: ArcGIS

2) Berlin, Germany

Like London, Berlin uses a geographically distorted visualization of its subway system as the main map for travelers. MIT researchers found that subway lines taking sharper turns are easier to follow, and major transfers are crisper as a result.

Image Credit:

Compare the layout of Berlin’s subway map above with the geographically correct layout below:

Image Credit: 99designs

3) Lisbon, Portugal

Because Lisbon’s subway lines are simple and the stops are spread out, the geographically accurate route map actually works fine here. While a more angular map might pass the blink test more readily, this map gives travelers an idea of where exactly in the city they’re going.

Image Credit: Lisbon Travel and Holiday Guide

4) Washington, D.C., U.S.A

Washington, D.C.’s subway map uses horizontal, vertical, and 45-degree lines to illustrate its subway map. By including waterways, greenways and parks, and even the most popular monuments right on the subway map — which are also illustrated in the angular, abstract style — travelers get more context for each stops’ location. This is especially helpful for those who aren’t familiar with the city or are visiting some of the most popular locations.

Image Credit: Crazz Images

Compare the above map to a geographically accurate version to get an idea of how the former improves readability:

Image Credit: Charles Buntjer

5) Melbourne, Australia

The map of Melbourne’s subway system below is still just a draft, but it’s one that The Age reports will likely replace the current map in the next year or two. First, take a look at the draft:

Image Credit: The Age

And compare it to the current map, which will likely disappear soon:

Image Credit: The Age

The subway map upgrade isn’t a drastic change in style. As you can see, both the draft of the new map and the current map both employ the geographically distorted style of Vignelli’s NYC map. Instead, the biggest change is in the coloring. While the old map uses only blue and yellow, the draft uses 10 different colors and several patterns to give a better indication of where trains move throughout the city.

6) Moscow, Russia

Moscow’s subway map has gone through many iterations since its inception in 1935, becoming more and more abstract as time goes on. The result is what you see below: brightly colored, angular lines set around a circle that immediately catches your eye. It’s also great how well the major transfer hubs pop: outlined groupings where two, three, or four lines meet.

Image Credit: Moscow Metro Official Site

The Worst Subway Maps in the World

7) Stuttgart, Germany

While the straight and crisp lines in Stuttgart’s subway map make individual stops and transfers easier to navigate, the perspective isn’t very easy on the eyes. A bird’s eye view of the map would make for an easier-to-understand design.

Image Credit:

8) Mexico City, Mexico

Thankfully, there are other versions of Mexico City’s subway map than the one below — but this one is still used by the city as one of the official maps. It’s chaotic if nothing else — especially with the road map overlay.

Image Credit: Geo-Mexico

9) Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo’s subway system is one of the most complex in the world, so it’s no surprise its map is nearly frightening to look at. With so many symbols and colors, it’s hard to make sense of where you need to go.

Image Credit: Tokyo Metro

Several designers have taken on the challenge of trying to redesign Tokyo’s subway map to make it more comprehendible. Here’s one iteration:

Image Credit: The Guardian

What do you think of these subway maps? Which styles do you find easiest to understand? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

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