Helvetica and the New York City Subway System

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Paul Shaw, an award-winning graphic designer, typographer, calligrapher, and teacher at Parsons School of Design and the School of Visual Arts, tells the story of how New York City's subway signage evolved from a "visual mess" to a uniform system using the Helvetica typeface. His illustrated book Helvetica and the New York City Subway System looks at how politics, economics, and bureaucratic forces shaped decisions made about the subway’s appearance as much as design ideas did.


Paul Shaw

Comments [10]

An abbreviated look at the original type design for New York City Transit Authority

Aug. 05 2011 09:42 AM

If youre interested in this topic, pick up the book UNIMARK, a retrospective of the infamous design agency. They were also essentially responsible for bringing helvetica to US corporate branding.

Aug. 04 2011 03:38 PM

The New Yorker has an article that picks up several of Paul Shaw's points:

Aug. 04 2011 01:29 PM
Matt from Brooklyn

I agree that the signage in Penn Station is some of the least helpful you'll find. Or... not find, in this case.

I'd also be interested in knowing who monitors that on behalf of the city, or similar issues.

Aug. 04 2011 01:27 PM
Ellen Lubell from Park Slope, Brooklyn

What Mr. Shaw has not mentioned is the revolutionary impact of the introduction of the new typeface in 1966. It felt very modern - in stark contrast to many of the pre-World War II trains still in use and the old, dark stations.

The new typeface also felt all of a piece with the efforts of Mayor Lindsay and Thomas Hoving to bring the city into the modern age. It was great!

Aug. 04 2011 01:23 PM

Perhaps Mr. Shaw could comment on the state of New York City signage today. In my experience, it's some of the worst to found anywhere in the world. It's still the case that it is often _impossible_ to identify from a subway car what station you are pulling into; signs are too small, placed at bad heights, etc. Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal are the very height of hideous design. Grand Central follows closely behind.

Ceilings in many parts of the system are so low that overhead signs are obscured by all the people. Signs are often placed erratically, with little indication of which way to go to get to what. Try dealing with one of the platforms where there is just one route to get to another line. It doesn't help that in some places you have to take a very circuitous route to get to another line or to an exit to the street.

Aug. 04 2011 01:18 PM

And we have to add the posters for the never-ending chaos of nighttime and weekend route changes because of so-called 'maintenance'.

Aug. 04 2011 01:16 PM
Smokey from LES

There uses to be a standard Helvetica-style font for New York City street signs, but now there is a hard-to-read font on lots of Midtown signs. What happened to the standardization of these signs?

Aug. 04 2011 01:16 PM
Gabriel from NYC

Does Paul Shaw know or have an opinion on whether the Designers Republic is responsible for the prevalence of Helvetica today?

Aug. 04 2011 12:31 PM
Rich K from UCNJ

Even 40 years in, Helvetica still isn't used everywhere. Many R trains, as an example, still use the older Standard Grotesk / Akzidenz Grotesk face in their line designators.
In any organization the size of the MTA (or even much smaller), enforcing graphic standards requires continuous policing, both to make sure it's done right, and to make sure it does evolve when it needs to.
Personally, I love the juxtaposition of modern Helvetica with the older mosaic serif faces in many stations. It embraces the history of the system and it's future.

Aug. 04 2011 11:13 AM

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