Subway Maps and Marketing

By Richard Berman, VerbFactory CEO

ctaI’ve always been fascinated by maps, and a few years ago I ended up buying a book called Transit Maps of the World ( It’s just a collection of the system maps that many of us see posted on subway cars every day. But if you look a little bit deeper, each one of the maps reflects the kinds of decisions that marketers make every day.

If you’ve ever been on a subway, you know that no train or trolley system is a perfect grid of straight lines – in fact, you can feel the trains jog, turn, and dip as they move from station to station. Yet when you look at a map of any transit system in the world, you will see that all of the rough edges are miraculously smoothed out and that stations tend to be spaced pretty evenly, even though the actual distances can vary widely. And (as anyone who has tried to switch trains in Times Square knows) the actual connections between trains can require a much longer and confusing walk than the MTA map would suggest.

In a way, the creation of subway maps is really a marketing function. For starters, it is critical to get the basic information correct…cartographers can’t simply ignore a station that is inconveniently placed or connect two stations that don’t actually meet up. That’s rule #1 of marketing: tell the truth. If you want to see an angry commuter, just look for someone riding the Washington Metro trying to transfer to the Silver Line to Dulles Airport. The train won’t reach that far for several years – but the transit authority has seen fit to include it on its maps…albeit with a thinner line that is supposed to indicate “future service.”

Once the basics are nailed down, the next step is to simplify. The London Tube is a jumbled mess, but the system map is as crisp and precise as a Mondrian painting. It’s a work of genius because it puts order to the chaos of 270 stations and more than a dozen lines strewn all across Europe’s largest city. It may not have all of the distances perfectly represented, but what the map lacks in scale it more than makes up for in usefulness for Londoners and visitors alike. Making concepts easy to grasp is a key part of any good marketing campaign, and subway maps tend to do that very well.

The last stage is aesthetic – and this is where marketers can really get creative. Subway maps need to look good to showcase a city’s vision of itself, so once the elements of accuracy and simplicity are melded together, the map can then become a piece of promotional art – in essence, a piece of marketing collateral – for a city or region. Many of Paris’s Metro stations may be a bit dingy, but you’d never know it from the vibrant, clean map that’s posted all over the city and included in every travel guide. And the elegant horizontal design of Toronto’s TTC map can almost make you forget that there are really only three lines and that most of the city isn’t reachable underground.

So here is our challenge to you: the next time you are on a subway and bored out of your mind, look at the map on the wall and try to trace the train’s route in your mind as you head from station to station. Chances are that you’ll notice many discrepancies and deviations…but you will reach your destination exactly as the map promised you would. That’s good marketing in action!

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