News & Politics

Q&A With Metro Map Designer Lance Wyman

As Metro officials contemplate shortening station names, the man behind the map talks about his philosophy on iconography, changes coming to the new map, and where he really likes to be in the city

Lance Wyman is the face behind the iconic Washington area Metro map. Photograph by Stephanie Swafford

You may not recognize his face, but you definitely know the work of Lance Wyman: The 74-year-old graphic designer and graduate of the Pratt Institute has traveled the world for his projects, which include graphics for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, logos for award-winning architecture in Seoul, and local images such as the animal icons at the National Zoo. He’s also the face behind the iconic Washington area Metro map. With an average of nearly 800,000 riders per week, Metro undoubtedly falls among the busiest heavy-rail systems in the country, second only to the New York subway. With endless modifications to the transit system and new rail lines in the works, a fresh guide is needed—and Wyman, who lives in New York City, is stepping up to the challenge. Metro officials are making decisions about shortening station names this week, and it seems likely they’ll take Wyman’s advice.

You live in New York, but you’ve done a lot of work for Washington. Do you spend a lot of time here? How do the cities compare?
At the moment, my time in Washington is focused on the design of the map. A typical day is a meeting, a ride on the Metro and lunch in between. As far as DC Metro and New York Subway life, both have the peak hour crunch and both have lots to see as cities. I know as a frequent user of the Subway that I easily get lost when I have to deviate from my routine rides, the ones I’m familiar with. I become a tourist in New York and often have to rely on the Subway map. It’s probably the same for Washingtonians. For me, being a tourist is good; I get more sensitive to what information is important.

How does your map reflect the lifestyle of a Washingtonian?
The map clearly reflects that a Washingtonian lives in a vital urban area with DC, the nation’s capital, at it’s center, and encircled by four counties—Prince George’s, Fairfax, Arlington, Montgomery—and Alexandria. The government and tourist attractions are highlighted on the Mall, parking is indicated at the outer stations showing where driving and Metro exchange.

In addition to the Metro map, you’ve designed logos, symbols, and emblems for various clients. What goes into consideration when creating these images?
One thing that was really instilled in me working on the Olympics program is that you have an opportunity to communicate to people in their language, because you’re not working with just one spoken or written language. It’s kind of a no-brainer now. It used to be that iconography and the visual system was something just used for illiterate people, but that’s something I highly disagree with. In fact, the visual language is very supportive. You can’t call someone who comes from Mexico illiterate because they speak Spanish.

How will you incorporate that visual language into the Metro map?
The idea is to try to create something that communicates to as wide an audience as possible. When you’re looking at a problem like a Metro map, you’re having a range of people using those systems. You want it to work for the everyday user just as well as a person coming from Turkey, or China, or someplace; someone who may not as adeptly read the names on the map.

What other changes will we see on the new map?
The one that is the most obvious is the line that’s going to go out to Dulles. The map will have to show peak hour services, and where exchanges won’t be necessary between Franconia-Springfield and Greenbelt or between West Falls Church and Largo Town Center. Those are going to be difficult. Also, somewhere along the line, the names of the stations have gotten very long. That’s not only a problem for the everyday user, but just imagine if the name was in Chinese and you had to translate that into English. It’s really an amazing thing to realize how complicated that is. I think we should go through the original map and look at the original names. “U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo” used to just be “U Street.” That might serve some of the areas well.

That seems like some serious work. Is this one of your most difficult projects?
Yes, it is complicated. In its best solution, it should look simple. It’s been called an icon of the city; a branding element of DC. That name has stuck with it for years and I hope we can add the new additions without losing that. Adding new lines and new services is really a challenge. . . . I see the new map as taking advantage of current technology and techniques to better communicate to the frequent Metro user, as well as to the non-English speaking tourist. I’m very thankful that I have the chance to get involved again.

Now that you’ve spent so much time here, what would you say is your favorite spot in Washington?
My favorite place is Mitsitam, the restaurant over at the American Indian Museum. I go there every time I go down to DC now to get the bison flank steak. I also really enjoy spending time on the Mall. I’m very familiar with it having been involved in it before; it’s kind of like a deja vu experience going back there. I feel like a real tourist when I’m on the mall.

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