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Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story

Paul Shaw

(MIT Press; US: Mar 2011)

Without the subway system New York City as we know it could not function. It’s a modern marvel which makes it not only possible but also practical to live in the Bronx and work in downtown Manhattan or live in Queens yet attend high school in Brooklyn. Given the ubiquitous influence of the subway on city life, it’s not surprising that references to its visual aspects can evoke New York at least as easily as an image of the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State building. In fact a white numeral ‘1’ in a red circle or a white-on-black enameled sign with a narrow white strip at the top says “home” to many a New Yorker as surely as the art nouveau entrances of the Metro or the phrase “Mind the gap, please” does to residents of Paris and London respectively.


The evolution of signage for the New York City subway system is the focus of Paul Shaw’s Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story. In the course of investigating when and how Helvetica came to be adopted as standard for subway signage Shaw also looks at the history of the subway system itself, the evolution of transportation signage worldwide in the ‘60s, the work of the design firm Unimark International, and the history of the Helvetica typeface. In particular, he’s concerned with correcting the notion that Helvetica has long been the official font of the subway system, a persistent error he finds in a Village Voice article from the ‘70s as well as in the 2007 documentary Helvetica.


Helvetica and the New York City Subway System is a beautifully designed and richly illustrated large format book (11.2” by 9.7”) full of details and loaded with historic photographs which form a visual archive of subway signage. It’s a true nerd’s delight, in other words, and also an important book for people interested in the history of New York City and in the problems of design in an urban environment. It also provides an object lesson on the gaps which often exist between the stated goals of governing bodies and their implementation, providing many examples in which the reality of informational signs in the subway stations was at odds with the stated plans of the whichever body was currently charged with governing the system.


Such discrepancies are not surprising because there’s nothing neat and simple about the New York City subway system. More a product of continual evolution and adaptation than unified central planning, it began life as three separate and competing lines. First was the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) which began operation in 1904, followed in 1913 by the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (later renamed the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation or BMT) and then the Independent Subway System (IND) in 1932. In 1940 the three lines were combined into a single system, but vestiges of their separate pasts linger to this day (e.g., differences in the size of cars on the different lines, imperfect or nonexistent connections between nearly adjacent stations) and many a New Yorker still thinks in terms of taking the IRT or BMT, rather than the #1 or the R train, to work.


In the early years uniformity was not a priority. The very first platform signs created for the IRT mixed serif and sans serif letters and more variants were added as the BMT and IND systems came into existence. As the system grew the number and type of signs proliferated and even after the three lines were combined into a single system a variety of approaches to signage persisted which made an already complex system even more difficult to navigate.


In 1966 the New York City Transit Authority hired the design firm Unimark International to study the signage situation, which might charitably have been described as chaotic, and to make recommendations for improvement. Unimark produced a detailed report based on modern principles of graphic design as well as observations of how people actually used the subway system only to see their recommendations partially ignored and partially implemented in an imperfect manner by the Transit Authority’s in-house Bergen Street shop. Financial constraints played a role in this decision as did the Transit Authority’s desire to avoid antagonizing union workers while the 12-day transit strike of January 1966 was still fresh in everyone’s memory.


One consequence of having the new signs created in the Bergen Street shop was the use of the Standard Medium typeface rather than Helvetica. While Helvetica might have been the better aesthetic choice, practical and financial considerations ruled the day: Bergen Street already had Standard Medium in the shop while adopting Helvetica would have meant paying for large quantities of metal type to be shipped from Europe. Somewhat ironically, by December 1989 when Helvetica was officially adopted for subway and commuter rail signage, it was no longer a hot new typeface but was falling out of favor due to overuse as well as the postmodern backlash against the notion of neutral, rational and universal design.


As Shaw points out, even though subway signage today is as uniform as it has ever been, it will never be absolutely standard. For one thing, there will always be a need for temporary signs, often created by hand as the situation arises. For another, the LED systems recently added to many cars have their own limitations in terms of colors and fonts available. Finally, many of the station walls feature colorful mosaics in a variety of styles which add local color to the underground environment and emphasize the specific character and history of particular stations and neighborhoods.

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