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Who Made That Subway Signage?

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Interesting article on the Times on the origins of today's subway signage.


Who Made That Subway Signage?



In 1966, Bob Noorda, a Dutch-born designer, spent three weeks navigating New York’s subway system, pretending to be a commuter and trying to follow the signs from one train to another. What Noorda found was chaos: the walls bristled with arrows and impossible-to-follow instructions. The New York Transit Authority was hoping that Noorda and his firm, Unimark International, could fix the problem.


It was an era when graphic designers hoped to reinvent the world, and Marshall McLuhan declared, “We become what we behold.” The team at Unimark wore lab coats, and at one point they drafted a manifesto declaring their allegiance to sans-serif type. When Noorda and his partner Massimo Vignelli took on the subway signs, they didn’t just update them — they invented what they thought of as a new grammar for New York City. They used minimal text, arrows only when necessary and color-coded discs to indicate different train lines. The discs were Noorda’s masterstroke.


Subway riders could navigate from dot to dot, in much the same way that hikers traverse a forest by following trail blazes.


The signs also had to project an aura of officialdom. As a rider, “you want to know that all the signs are coming from a single voice,” according to Paul Shaw, a design historian and typographer. Noorda and Vignelli decided that New York’s “voice of authority” could be playful. Their signs popped with Crayola-like color and showcased a typeface called Standard that projected a Bauhaus cool.


Noorda, who died in 2010, once mapped out every decision commuters made as they navigated through Times Square station. “Bob Noorda had a very systematic mind,” Vignelli once wrote. “It was a pleasure to see how logic will prevail over emotional issues.”



Massimo Vignelli designed the New York subway diagram that made its debut in 1972.


Did you think about carrying over the design from the subway signs into the subway map? It was not a map. It was a diagram. It was not about what happens aboveground. The purpose of the diagram was to show where the subway lines go. This was long before the computer. Therefore it was done with a lot of mistakes. We had primitive information. Whatever we did back in 1972 was done by hand.


That original map from the ’70s is beautiful. People have turned it into mugs and T-shirts. A lot of people love it, and a lot of people hate it, too, by the way.


Your firm worked on the M.T.A.’s Weekender app, an interactive subway map released last year. It must have been satisfying to correct those mistakes from the ’70s. Yes! The new map is just about the state of the art in terms of accuracy and legibility.




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Originally the signs were Black text on a White background with a black top strip, however the changed them later on to be white text on a black background with a white strip on top because the white signs were prone to being grafitied up.


The switch from Standard Medium to Helvetica was due to the fact the newer computer based printing systems didnt have Standard medium installed.


Theres a book out there by Paul Shaw, Helvetica and the New York City Subway System that has a history of the signage. Its a great read with lots of historical photos, I have the book, I got it when it first came out.

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So that's how the art of subway signage evolved to how it is now. All I know about it is the way the maps themselves look as they changed. Always wondered...

Edited by realizm

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