When contacted about the approaching demise of the hulking stainless-steel object found in every New York City subway station since 1999, Paola Antonelli, the Museum of Modern Art’s senior curator for architecture and design, referred to it as “my beloved MetroCard machine.” I’m tempted to say she was being overly effusive, except, it turns out, I feel exactly the same.
Antonelli included the familiar, workaday machine in “Talk to Me,” a 2011 exhibition about interactive design, much of which was highly speculative and futuristic. When I dig up my review of the show, I discover that I’d labeled the big hunk of subway infrastructure “utterly lovable.”
Not that I feel love every time I refill my card, a process that is so fast and frictionless that I normally don’t feel anything at all. But my affection for the machine occasionally bubbles to the surface. For instance, on my most recent trip to Washington, D.C., my husband and I found ourselves stuck in the Foggy Bottom Metro station, flummoxed by the D.C. Metro’s vending machine. With an oddball buffet of mechanical buttons and arbitrarily placed instructions, it felt like an artifact from the former Soviet Union. So we had to do the unthinkable: ask an attendant for help.
By comparison, the MetroCard machine has the cheerful demeanor of a kindergarten color-theory lecture. But soon the machine and the bright-yellow card that accompanies it will, like the subway token before it, be history, to be replaced by the OMNY vending machine. A case study from OMNY’s manufacturer, Cubic Transportation Systems, estimates the switch, which will begin early next year, will be complete by the end of 2023.
That the MetroCard machine (unlike many aspects of the subway system) elicits fond emotions has a lot to do with the unusually thoughtful people who designed it. The process, which began in 1996, was led by industrial designer Masamichi Udagawa, who had just opened the New York office of the Palo Alto–based design firm IDEO. The assignment: to overhaul a vending machine the MTA had already decided to purchase, a standard-issue device manufactured by Cubic (the same company responsible for the new OMNY system). Sigi Moeslinger, a designer who had recently left IDEO, joined in the redesign and, in 1997, the pair (partners in business and in life) had formed a new firm called Antenna and taken the commission with them. They worked closely throughout with a couple of IDEO interaction designers, David Reinfurt and Kathleen Holman, and the MTA’s director of arts and design, Sandra Bloodworth.
Udagawa describes the assignment as “disaster management.” The MTA had determined, after extensively testing the off-the-shelf Cubic machine, that “everyone hated it and couldn’t deal with it.” The problem, according to Udagawa, was that it “was designed by engineers” who didn’t think about how New Yorkers, a huge and wildly varied group of people, might quickly and easily get their cards.
For one thing, the Cubic machine’s interface was confusingly “scattered” across the front of the machine. Also, in 1996, half the likely users didn’t have a bank account and therefore had no experience with the most common touchscreens of that time: those on ATMs. And in general, vending machines, particularly in the context of the subway system, didn’t have a great track record. The MTA had tried token vending machines in the 1960s and the 1980s, but most people preferred the reliability of a gruff token-booth clerk.
This situation gave rise to an organizing feature that lends the MetroCard machine its splashy aesthetic. “The multicolor expression wasn’t for making the station happier,” says Udagawa. Instead, each color relates to a function. The green area is where you insert cash. Blue indicates where credit cards go. The yellow zone is where the machine spits out yellow MetroCards, and red is for change and receipts. Bloodworth had suggested the scheme since the MTA was painting the same palette (albeit in less vivid hues) on station columns in an ongoing systemwide overhaul. (She was also instrumental in convincing the agency to fabricate the colored areas on the machine, called “bezels,” in porcelain enamel, making them vandalproof, resistant to wear, and shinier than just about anything else in the system, even today.)
The most important thing about the design, though, is how interaction is scripted in discrete steps. “There is one question per screen and nothing else you can do,” Udagawa explains. Refill an old card, or get a new card? Add more time or more value? Use cash or a credit card? One particular challenge in its adoption — remember, this was a decade before the launch of the iPhone — was just getting people to understand that you had to touch the screen to start. Ultimately, Moeslinger created an animated finger pointing to the “Start” button. “It made it so obvious,” she says.
Another virtue: The type on the screen is huge — 54-point Helvetica Neue bold. As Reinfurt recalls, they had designed it so the type and graphics were really large, “in part to do with our conversations with the Lighthouse for the Blind.” (I’d never thought about this: As someone who has aged considerably since the machines were first installed 23 years ago, it’s one of the few interfaces I can successfully navigate without my reading glasses.)
In general, the machine’s scale is a trademark. As Antonelli said recently by phone (already speaking of it in the past tense), “You could just use your whole hand to push one of those buttons. It was this kind of sturdiness that I loved about it. No nonsense. It made me think of one of those MTA workers that emerged from tunnels wearing their orange vests and their gloves. It had something that was truly just like New York.”
But I only began to understand what made this mechanical object so lovable when Udagawa explained something he had learned while attending the Cranbrook Academy of Art in suburban Detroit. At the time, its design department was known for teaching an approach called “product semantics,” which encouraged students to redesign common household objects in expressive, often metaphoric shapes. “That was such a departure from the modernist tradition of form follows function,” recalls Udagawa.
While much of what emerged from Cranbrook in that period — like a prototype of a desk phone that worked like a book and changed functions as you flipped the pages — was famous within the design world, almost none of it made it into production. It was design for a future that never quite happened. But the fanciful sensuality once celebrated by the cognoscenti has lived on, hidden in plain sight in a rugged machine that serves a billion or so subway riders a year. For Udagawa, and perhaps other riders as well, it is this characteristic that makes the MetroCard machine so lovable — its “subtly anthropomorphic character, with a cheerful face that appears to welcome the customer.”
As Antenna, Udagawa and Moeslinger finished work on the MetroCard machine and went on to design the first check-in kiosks for JetBlue, the first McDonald’s self-order kiosks (the fast-food corporation saw a kinship between its customers and the MTA’s ridership), the ticket-vending interface for Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road, and the Help Point intercoms now found in the subways. They also applied their deceptively modest method of inquiry — We don’t know anything; we need to learn — to the design of several new subway cars, including the R211, the one with bright-yellow grab bars and vivid LED signage, that is currently being tested.
They say they don’t mind that they didn’t have a hand in the design of the OMNY machines because the new ones will never be as central to the lives of subway riders as the MetroCard machines have been. Most New Yorkers will simply tap their phones or credit cards to pay their fares. You know, c’est la vie.
Sometime next year, New Yorkers may begin to notice the dwindling number of MetroCard machines. For many, it won’t just feel like the inevitable exchange of an old technology for a new one — like another 4 a.m. update of your phone’s operating system — but more like the passing of a dependable friend, the sort we don’t much think about or fully appreciate until they’re gone.