aLLEn hiLLEry

Setting Massimo Vignelli’s Design to Music

Poetry in Motion

Alexander Chen’s “Conductor” is a data visualization that sets the MTA schedule to music.

Whether you’re an urban dweller passing through the turnstiles on a daily basis, or a first-time visitor using it to navigate your way through the Big Apple, you’re one of the five million riders who use the 114-year-old subway system every day. This architectural wonder gets filled with at least a million different stories daily, as we journey to and from work or reconnect with an old friend. The data visualization above reminds me of my subway travels and traversing this vast network.″ width=”640″ height=”360″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>
Play the video to see Alexander Chen’s “Conductor” come to life.

Alexander Chen’s “Conductor” uses Massimo Vignelli’s iconic subway map, and turns it into a musical instrument using the MTA real-time schedule and Tim Kahn’s “Old Cello — Pizzicato”. The visualization is created using HTML5 & JavaScript, with Adobe Illustrator for the design, and the pizzicato is triggered by Flash in the background communicating with JS Sound Manager. As the trains depart and cross paths at transfer points, it “plucks” a chord. You can also manually pluck your own tune as well, making this visualization interactive.

Pizzicato translated is pinched or plucked. On bowed string instruments it is a method of playing by plucking strings with the fingers. It produces a short and percussive sound.

What I like about this data visualization is its simplicity despite the underlying complexity of it all. The MTA schedule data comes to life through Vignelli’s subway map. This map works well for Chen’s piece due to the vibrant colors and angled paths the trains make as they go along their respective routes. The accompanying music is a perfect fit reminding us of the hurried pace we find rushing to our next destination.

With 5 million riders using the system daily, everything flows in a quick but rhythmic dance, careful not to get in each other’s way. As the trains pull in and out of stations at their scheduled times, they carry millions of stories while creating their own stories at the same time. When routes converge, it’s quick for the most part as the sound of the pizzicato. Watching the visualization and seeing an E Train departing at 8:05 AM makes me think of the 42nd St — Time Square station. I also think of the crosstown L train riding along 14th street stopping at Union Square as fingers pluck the cello.

Flamenco is a southern Spanish art form. It has three branches: cante (song), baile (dance) and toque (the art of guitar) playing.

The plucking of the string also brings to mind the brief encounters you have as a fellow passenger. Whether it’s a five-minute conversation or the brushing against someone as we rush through 34th St Penn Station, we’ve made brief contact and crossed paths with a fellow traveler. I liken it to changing partners during a dance in a synchronized fashion. One can even take a mental escape from their daily commute by transporting themselves to the streets of Barcelona and imagine the pounding of the pavement as a rhythmic flamenco with a fast-paced false from the guitarists.

I really enjoyed researching this visualization, and would like to shout out to Jill Hubley from Data Visualization Society for recommending it! It was the perfect blend of data visualization, music, and the NYC subway for me. I’ve also written a piece on what we can learn from designers like Vignelli and making effective visual designs.


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