Michael Hertz - you've surely seen his subway map - dies at 87

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Michael Hertz - you've surely seen his subway map - dies at 87
In a photo provided by Photo Communications Co, Michael Hertz, seated third from left, with other members of a committee established to come up with a new New York City subway map. Hertz, whose design firm produced one of the most consulted maps in human history, the curvy-lined chart that New York City subway riders peer at over one another’s shoulders to figure out which stop they want, died on Feb. 18 in East Meadow, N.Y. He was 87. Photo Communications Co via The New York Times.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Michael Hertz, whose design firm produced one of the most consulted maps in human history, the curvy-lined chart that New York City subway riders peer at over one another’s shoulders to figure out which stop they want, died Feb. 18 in East Meadow, New York. He was 87.

His son Eugene announced the death, at Nassau University Medical Center, but did not give a cause. Hertz also lived in East Meadow, on Long Island.

In the mid-1970s, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority gave Hertz’s firm, Michael Hertz Associates, the task of coming up with a map of the New York City subway system that would help riders make sense of that many-tentacled beast.

There was already a system map (or “diagram,” as some preferred to call it), a colorful Modernist thing created by Italian designer Massimo Vignelli and introduced in 1972. It was fun to look at — the Museum of Modern Art in New York has that version in its collection — but few users loved it, in part because the Vignelli map didn’t relate the underground to the aboveground.

“It was the 1970s,” Arline L. Bronzaft, a psychologist who worked on Hertz’s replacement map, told Newsday in 2004. “People were fearful of going on the subways. We wanted people to use the map to see the sights of New York.”

The map that Hertz’s firm came up with included streets, neighborhoods and other surface reference points. And it depicted the city and its signature elements like Central Park and the waterways in a fashion more reflective of reality — the park wasn’t square, as on the earlier map, and the water wasn’t beige.

The new map was a group effort. An MTA committee led by John Tauranac studied various designs and gathered input. A Japanese painter and designer working for Hertz, Nobuyuki Siraisi, rode every subway line with his eyes closed so that he could better feel the curves in the routes. (One of the complaints about the Vignelli diagram was that it was done entirely in straight lines.)

There has been some sniping over the years as to who deserves credit for the 1979 map, with Hertz taking exception whenever Tauranac was identified as “chief designer” or given some similar title.

“We’ve had parallel careers,” Hertz told The New York Times in 2012. “I design subway maps, and he claims to design subway maps.”

In 2004, the Long Island newspaper Newsday asked Tom Kelly, then the spokesman for the MTA, about who did what.

“The best thing I could probably tell you is to quote my sainted mother: ‘Success has many fathers,’” Kelly said. “That’s not to disparage any work that anybody else put into the map. But, in all honesty, it’s Mike Hertz that did all the basic design and implementation of it. In all fairness, the father of this map, as far as we’re concerned, is Mike Hertz.”

One thing is certain: The map he and his team came up with had staying power. It has been tweaked, updated and amended over the years. A substantial redesign was done by Hertz in 1998. But the core concept developed in 1979 remains.

“In transit map circles, Mike was a giant,” Charles Gordanier, the MTA official who oversees the map today, said by email. “All New Yorkers carry some image of Mike’s subway map in their heads.”

Michael Edward Hertz was born Aug. 1, 1932, in Brooklyn to Abraham and Jean (Gittleman) Hertz. He grew up in Brooklyn and Queens and earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Queens College in 1954, then spent two years in the Army.

He worked for The Walt Disney Co. as art director for movie advertising for a decade before starting his own firm in the late 1960s. He worked on transit maps for Houston and Washington, maps of New York City’s various neighborhoods, airport maps and directories, and more.

In addition to his son Eugene, Hertz is survived by his wife, Carole Ann (Ruden) Hertz, whom he married in 1954; two other sons, David and Joseph; a daughter, Leslie B. Kawaler; and eight grandchildren.

For the MTA map, he told the news website Gothamist in 2007, the team started out handcuffed.

“Perhaps the biggest constraint was that it had to fit into the existing map frames in every subway car,” Hertz said. Since the city is taller and narrower than Vignelli had made it, he added, the team had to “knead, bend and squeeze the map to fit in the already existing frame.”

A breakthrough, he said, was the idea that a bit of distortion could be introduced.

“We realized that we could nip and tuck smaller areas of the city to give more space to congested areas like Lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn without major damage to the overall sense of the city’s geography,” he said.

The team tested preliminary designs on actual subway users. The result, Hertz believed, did the job nicely. “It continues to be the right balance between information and graphic clarity,” he told The Times in 2010.

He especially wanted the map to be understandable to tourists and other first-time users.

He told The Times in 2004, “I still get a pleasure in a subway station when I see somebody in lederhosen looking at the map.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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