Matthew Norton
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Rhetorical Study of the NYC Subway Map

Rhetorical Study of the NYC Subway Map

Visual Rhetoric, Spring 2019

In the spring of 2019 I took a visual rhetoric course for my “outside-the-college” design elective. I was comfortable taking a writing course due to the overt number of english courses I took for my journalism degree. The course was extremely eye-opening as the class discussed various visual forms and I was the only one with a design background. For my final paper I completed a rhetorical study of the New York City Subway Map using a cluster analysis. While this is a brief explanation of my research, the entire essay can be found here.


 
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WHY THE NYC SUBWAY MAP?

NYC Subway system is the largest and most complex transit system in the world. It has an interesting history due to the significance of NYC, the growth of the subway system, and evolution of the map as a visual form. Analysis of the 2019 version allows for criticism of the current-day artifact along with interpretations of past versions to see how it arrived to it’s current form. Furthermore, there has already been discussion regarding the NYC Subway Map previously existed more-so than others; largely due to Vignelli’s 1972 version.

CLUSTER ANALYSIS

A cluster analysis allows complex visual artifacts to be dissected and elements can be interpreted individually. The consistent visual style across the map welcomes this type of analysis. Sonja Foss explains “cluster analysis involves three basic steps: (1) identifying key terms in the artifact; (2) charting the terms that cluster around the key terms; and (3) discovering an explanation for the artifact.” (Foss) In order to adapt this to a visual study, I’ll be replacing “terms” with “visual elements.” There are four key visual element clusters identified from the NYC Subway Map: (1) station names (2) rail-lines (3) neighborhood labels (4) geographical background. These four clusters make up the majority of the map’s visual content.

Station names  locate specific stations and describe the services offered.

Station names locate specific stations and describe the services offered.

Rail-lines  show the paths of specific rail-lines and how they interact.

Rail-lines show the paths of specific rail-lines and how they interact.

Neighborhood labels  identify the boroughs and small neighborhoods within the map.

Neighborhood labels identify the boroughs and small neighborhoods within the map.

The geographical background  presents a skewed representation of the “real-world” as a visual reference.

The geographical background presents a skewed representation of the “real-world” as a visual reference.

KEY INSIGHTS FROM ANALYSIS

A transit map serves as a visual representation of an urban area for a variety of people from tourists to locals. The consistency of visual style across station names, rail-lines, and neighborhood labels provides equal weight to individual elements throughout the map. That visual consistency and the abstraction of the geographical representation allows individual travelers to tailor the map to their own experiences and situations.

 

Works Cited
Foss, Sonja. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice. 5th ed., Waveland Press, 2018.