Seeing Stars

A comment Jon made about the Moscow Metro maps prompted me to google about for some pictures. I found this page, a comprehensive archive of Moscow subway maps going back to 1935. Since I'm a graphic design junkie, I checked them out. And I noticed something interesting. When the orange and purple lines were completed in 1973 or 1974, the map suddenly changed from a seemingly random jumble of lines to a distinct star pattern.

Now, subway maps are almost always abstractions. In fact, things are better that way; the configuration of stations with respect to each other is the important detail; the actual distances between stations, and the curved or straight nature of the actual tracks, is prettty irrelevant. When a city map is overlaid with its subway map, the result is often unrecognizable.

But when the purple and orange lines were completed, they went from being angled to completely straight, and the crossing point of the orange and purple lines was moved above the blue line. These modifications made the map into a star within a circle pattern.

The star disappears in 1984 with the introduction of two new (grey and yellow) lines.

The star in the circle was an important soviet emblem. It seems most likely that the similarity was just the bright idea of some clever designer. I wonder how obvious it
was to the people of Moscow, when the star maps came and went. And I wonder what subtle symbols are present in our own visual culture.

An example is the down-pointed triangles that can be seen in many of the graphics on the San Francisco MUNI buses and trains, which is historically a gay-rights symbol. Look for it next time you're in the city. What would it mean to you if it vanished one day?

What did the Moscovites think when the new maps, without stars, came out?

ps. this is the coolest of the Moscow subway maps (look for Line #9).

Posted by matt at 08.01.04 19:29