More than three decades ago, Lance Wyman designed the Metro map’s iconic interlocking colored lines, which have become the symbol of the transit system for millions of Washington commuters and tourists. Now he’s been hired to give it a makeover.
It is a challenge for the 73-year-old graphic designer. He has to find a way to add the new rail line to Dulles International Airport and integrate other changes to the map without ruining the classic, clean look.
“I get nervous,” Wyman said when he considered everything he’s been asked to accomplish. “We did that original one almost 40 years ago. It is amazing that it stuck.”
It isn’t uncommon for transit maps to go through revisions. London’s 148-year-old subway system has seen its map go through updates, and New York has done two major redesigns in just over a decade. But the original designer seldomly gets a chance to revise the concept.
In the world of graphic arts, Wyman is a rock star. He made his reputation after he designed the bold typeface and geometric logo for the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. He’s also made his mark on Washington, having done designs for many well-known spots.
He created icons for museums and monuments in the District that were once used on map kiosks and banners along the Mall. His signs to identify animals still adorn the elephant, ape and small-mammal house at the National Zoo. A logo for the old Washington Convention Center was his, as was an icon for some reading rooms at the Library of Congress. But none of Wyman’s other designs has withstood time as well as his original Metro map.
With its five bold lines overlaid across the Washington area, the Metro map has become a marketing tool that’s plastered on ads for apartment buildings and pamphlets. It’s a recognizable symbol for most anyone who’s ever ridden the region’s subway. In changing it, Wyman is embarking on a redesign that’s fraught with peril.
Designers say his job is the equivalent of trying to make a new label to replace the distinct red and white of the Campbell’s soup can. Chances of success are few, and the likelihood of a flop is great, especially given public scrutiny of the Metro system.
“It’s like trying to redo the Nike swoosh,” said Zachary M. Schrag, associate professor of history at George Mason University and author of “The Great Society Subway,” a history of the Washington area’s Metro. “You have something that’s so recognizable that you don’t want to tinker with it too much, but at the same time you have to upgrade it.”
About three months ago, a senior executive for Metro called Wyman and asked if he’d be interested in redoing the map. He agreed, under a contract worth up to $50,000. Since then, he’s visited the District twice to meet with Metro officials and discuss what he’ll need to incorporate into the new rendition.
“He’s really an expert at this,” said Lynn Bowersox, Metro’s managing director of public relations. “This is art-slash-science. That’s why we brought him back for this. He’s really iconic.”
Wyman faces a list of challenges. He has to add the new rail line to Dulles, include trains along the Red Line that end at Grosvenor, squeeze in a future split of the Blue Line and deal with some station names that have become long and cumbersome.
“It’s always easier when you have less to put on,” he said. “You want a distinctive look that works for people who live in the community and for someone who’s from China, speaks no English and is trying to find his way.”
Wyman has woken up in the middle of the night, fretting over aspects of the new design. What shade of silver should he use for the Dulles rail line — if it is officially named the Silver Line? How much space do you place between each station? Should station names be hyphenated or use slashes? And how do you fit all of the information and not crowd out the main icons, including the Capitol and the Washington Monument?
“They’re the nuclei of the whole map,” he said of the landmarks. “You start squeezing in more lines and information and you start to obliterate the quick orientation they give you.”
Wyman is reluctant to share his ideas for the new map. He says he needs to spend time riding Metro and see how his old map is being used. Once his ideas go out for public review, he said, they will go viral.
Metro officials expect to present Wyman’s new map design to the public this fall. The Blue Line split is proposed to take place next year, and the first phase of the new line to Dulles is expected to open in late 2013.
He knows there’s a chance for failure. He recalled how he once designed a logo for a pharmaceutical company and a visitor to his studio “thought it was a toilet seat,” Wyman said. He said he trashed the design and started over.
Wyman said he wants to make sure the Metro map is usable in every shape and form. The unfolded billfold pamphlet can’t be bigger than two $1 bills side by side. The map has to work on mobile devices and online, as well as in poster-size displays at Metro stations.
“The map has spirit,” he said. “It has to hang together like a good piece of music. It’s got life, a beat with colors and station stops. There’s a sense of rhythm. It has a solidity to it that’s unique to Washington. I don’t want to lose the good music.”
The son of a commercial fisherman and a typist, Wyman was born in Newark. After graduating from the Pratt Institute in New York with a bachelor’s degree in industrial design, Wyman worked for General Motors in Michigan and later worked for well-known New York architect and designer George Nelson.
He served a six-year stint in the Army National Guard before hopping on a plane to Mexico City with his newlywed wife, Neila, and a business partner to enter a competition to design a logo for the 1968 Summer Olympics. They won and created a special logo for the Games, using “Mexico 68” as a shape with the Olympic rings.
Wyman spent 41 / 2 years in Mexico, where he designed a map for the Mexico City subway and the graphics for the 1970 World Cup. Steve Harding, a Houston designer who worked for Wyman on the Metro map in the 1970s, said Wyman’s work in Mexico “was groundbreaking because he used icons to create a picture language. . . . He was considered a pioneer in using icons in graphic design.”
The Wymans returned to New York in 1971. About two years later, Metro’s planning and design team invited him to submit a concept for the rail system map and a few maps showing the surrounding neighborhoods. Wyman and his then-partner Bill Cannan did, and their team won the bid.
Wyman and a staff of three worked on the project. Wyman made the five rail lines thick, bold. He changed curved tracks into straight horizontal, vertical and 45-degree lines. Circles represented station stops, using representational spacing. He noted a few well-known landmarks, such as the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, and the Capital Beltway.
His original plans called for using symbols to identify Metro stops. A gift ribbon to mark Metro Center as a crossroad for trains and a shopping destination. A scroll for Archives, a small courthouse for Federal Triangle and the scales of justice for Judiciary Square. But the idea went nowhere.
Still, Wyman produced a powerful map with “primary colors, simple shapes, and a single sans serif font,” Schrag wrote in his book on the history of Metro. The design has been used since Metro began operating in 1976.
“Metro was truly a metropolitan system,” Schrag wrote. “And looking at Wyman’s map, riders could see that they were no longer just suburbanites or city dwellers but citizens of a region.”
In the studio office of Wyman’s Manhattan brownstone, the original Metro map hangs from an easel near his computer. Seventy-four journals, detailing his thoughts, sketches and ideas throughout his 50-year-career, line the bookshelves.
On a recent day, Wyman leaned against a counter and flipped through pages of his journals. He’s done more than 500 symbols, icons and logos used in a variety of places — from the Minnesota Zoo, to government buildings in Santa Fe, N.M., to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
He scoffs at being called a designer or an artist and instead refers to himself as “a way finder,” one who uses cartography skills and symbols to help people get to their destinations.
Wyman chuckled at the thought: His wife says he’s terrible with directions. The last time he rode Metrorail — more than 10 years ago — he got lost while leading a group of people attending a design conference. His copy of an old Metro map had a faded orange line that he mistook for the Red Line.
“I get lost easier than anybody,” he said, “so it has to be easily memorable and understandable.”