Turning NYC’s Iconic MetroCard Into A Massive Urban Game

Willy Wonka would approve.

Last week, New York’s beleaguered Metropolitan Transit Authority announced plans to sell advertising on the front of the MetroCard. Soon, for prices ranging from 18¢ to 51¢ per card, advertisers will have free reign to replace the MTA’s ubiquitous blue-and-yellow swoosh (which hasn’t changed since 1997!) with a design of their choice.


How did New Yorkers react to the news? Much in the same way New Yorkers react to any news relating to the city: by fighting with each other about it. Pragmatists pointed to the cash-strapped MTA’s desperate need of funds. Nostalgists–among them, the New York Times–called the ads a “defacement” of a classic piece of New York ephemera. Cynics saw the decision as another step towards the city’s total corporate sponsorship.

Wayne Congar and Brendan Bilko, two young Brooklyn designers who run a creative and branding consultancy called Mayday Mayday Mayday, think the plan suffers from a simple lack of imagination. “Let’s face it, most MetroCard advertising is going to suck,” says Congar. Shrinking a poster-sized ad and reproducing it on millions of cards? Yep, pretty boring. And, as the duo point out, a huge missed opportunity for the city. “The MTA prints around 170 million MetroCards each year,” explain Congar and Bilko. “The cards’ circulation is immense, the compounded advertising space is incredibly large. It’s a ripe opportunity to create a collective experience or game or public work.”

Mayday is proposing an alternative that could please critics on all sides of the table. Their idea is to let advertisers engage New Yorkers in an urban game, where each rider holds a key to unlocking a larger image with some embedded value. Think of it as a giant puzzle, where every MetroCard is a unique puzzle piece. “We started thinking about the excitement of Willy Wonka’s Golden Tickets, maybe the most engrossing participatory marketing campaign of all time,” Congar tells Co.Design. “Scavenger hunts and high-profile public art works can take over the city. Remember Christo’s gates? I think it was the lead on both Letterman and Conan’s monologues for a week.” They imagine using the MetroCard system as a tool to promote events, make announcements, and yes, even advertise.

While it’s only a theoretical proposal, and it’s still unclear whether the MetroCard printers are capable of supporting individualized card designs, Congar and Bilko hope their idea will turn heads within a cash-strapped city government, where advertising is a major source of income. In the age of participatory marketing, that can mean more than just extra Dr. Zizmore ads on your way to work. “Consumers have a lot of options to either ignore or engage,” adds Congar. “What’s interesting, then, is to find incentives for people to engage that have more to do with making a choice to be part of something, than getting a deal or cash back.”

More on the project on Mayday’s website, here.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.