Just now ordered a new book, Paul Shaw’s Helvetica and the New York City Subway System, thanks to an intriguing book review in the Wall Street Journal. The book traces the history of Gotham’s subway through its signage. Michael Bierut reviewed the book for the Journal:

Helvetica and the New York City Subway System

By the 1960s, using the New York subway meant navigating what a John Lindsay-era task force called "the most squalid public environment of the United States: dank, dingily lit, fetid, raucous with screeching clatter, one of the world’s meanest transit facilities." The ugly and baffling signs underlined the city government’s loss of control.

Seeking to bring order out of chaos, the Transit Authority in 1966 turned to the new design firm Unimark International. Two of its leaders, Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda, hailed from Milan, where Noorda (who died last year at age 82) had just designed the graphics for the Metropolitana Milanese. The heart of Mr. Shaw’s book is the story of what happened when these champions of High Modernism collided with the union labor at the Transit Authority’s Bergen Street sign shop.

Mr. Vignelli and Noorda conducted an analysis of the foot-traffic patterns at several of the subway system’s most convoluted stations and devised a sequence of coordinated directional signs. By placing information only at the point of decision, never before or after, the designers aimed to eliminate redundancy and contradictions, establishing a system that New Yorkers could navigate with confidence.

Clear language, clean design, a premium on navigation, and a relentless impulse to pare content to “just enough.” These are great design precepts for any medium, but they seem especially applicable to the constraints faced by mobile designers. As always, the design challenges faced in other domains often shed light and inspiration in our own work.

Interesting to note, too, that no matter what the project, client execution doesn’t always meet designer expectation. This one seems like a doozy. Vignelli and Noorda made a host of recommendations, including use of the then-novel Helvetica font for all signage. Recommendations in place, they left the Transit Authority to do the work of creating and hanging the signs. Alas, the city didn’t have Helvetica handy and went with Standard Medium, a 19th-century sans-serif. The logistics were even messier, as Bierut writes:

New signs were installed, but the old ones were left up. Then the Transit Authority added still more signs, hastily made by hand in an attempt to address the resulting chaos. Typical of the confusion was the fact that the sign-makers misread the blueprints. Not understanding that a black horizontal bracket was meant to secure the signs from above, they painted a black stripe along the top of each sign. In the face of public criticism of what the Daily News called the “Flubway,” Unimark was brought back to plan a system-wide implementation.

The cleanup went apace, including use of Helvetica, which eventually became the official systemwide font in 1989.

Subway type in tile
The MTA began introducing modern replicas of the old mosaic signs. Photo from The Wall Street Journal.

The tale combines several of my personal passions—design, wayfinding, type, and urban history—into a tidy story told through the unassuming tale of the transit system’s signage. Can’t wait for the book to arrive.

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