The New York City subway, harsh and intrusive as it is, offers a paradoxical bubble of solitude to those who want it. Though the trains are noisy, and each contains a small town’s population at rush hour — nearly 2,000 people, a few of whom always have headphones blaring at loudspeaker levels — a commuter onboard can often recede, losing him- or herself in a form of privacy unique to a city of millions. The subway is (for the time being, anyway) mostly a place where cell phones don’t ring and e-mails don’t ping. If you’re not reading or playing a computer game as you wait, odds are you’re gazing into the middle distance, gaining strength from those few minutes when nobody is asking anything of you.
The middle distance, though, is not empty. A subway station is full of interesting things to look at. Mosaics. Bare-bulb light sockets next to, and superseded by, far more powerful fluorescence. Lively advertising, flanked by lousy advertising. Here and there, a cockroach or a rodent. And, of course, signs. Each of them contains relatively few words, sometimes just one or two, and they are not only placed in the middle distance; they are deliberately hung where you are supposed to see them. Bored eyes, accustomed to stimulation, tend to settle on even just a few letters.
The background of each is black, the letters white. The older signs are enamel on steel, with thickness and gloss to the porcelain; some newer ones are made with adhesive vinyl films in matte finishes. The train lines are indicated with discs in ten official colors. Important details, like exits and warnings, are on red and yellow backgrounds. A slim white band across the top of nearly every sign demarcates… something. (More about that later.) The typeface is Helvetica, that avatar of modern efficiency, except when it isn’t. (More about that too.) The graphics are markedly consistent, with just enough oddities to make the whole thing interesting, and they have become nearly as pervasive a symbol of New York City as yellow taxicabs and Art Deco skyscrapers are. By and large the system all makes sense, despite its failings. It took decades to make that consistency happen, and the 1970 New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual, reproduced in these pages, is where the whole project began.
In the mid-nineteen-sixties, the New York subway system was heading into the worst stretch in its history, and maybe the worst stretch that any big transit system will ever have. In fact, a lot of people were writing off New York City itself. For more than a century, it had been a manufacturing town, its big airy loft buildings cranking out machine parts, Oreos, paper boxes, printed matter, refined sugar, you name it. Millions of immigrants had arrived expressly to work in its factories. In 1960, 95 percent of the clothing sold in America had come from the cutting tables and sergers of Manhattan’s garment district.
Modern manufacturers, though, needed wide-open floors and truck-loading bays, not lofts on narrow streets with funky old elevators. By the sixties, the South and the West, offering clean new space and cheap labor, had begun to draw people away. Between 1969 and 1976, 600,000 jobs left New York. After a century in which the city’s population had increased nearly tenfold, it was losing people for the first time. A recession that began in 1968 cut into tax revenue, unemployment increased the demands on social-service programs, and the city’s solution was to borrow heavily every year. New York was going broke.
On top of that, the subways were simply old, and looking older. Since the 1920s, Robert Moses — the grand czar of urban planning, holding more consolidated power than the mayor or the governor — had pushed for more and more parkways, more and more buses, and not a dime more than was necessary for rail. His view had been the prevailing one of his generation. Cars were the versatile future; trains were the fixed-route past. In 1963, the wrecking ball hit Pennsylvania Station, a building that was worth less than the site on which it stood despite its irreplaceable grandeur. Public railways came with baggage of another kind — regular squabbles between labor and management — and in 1966 a strike shut the whole transit system down for almost two weeks. Never mind that the exhaust and traffic of car culture were beginning to bring problems of their own; never mind, too, that about 4 million people still rode the subway on an average workday. Moses held all the cards, and he dismissed those who, he sneered, “shout for rails and inveigh against rubber.”
Lack of money led to neglect. In these years, the prevailing practice of the NYCTA was called “deferred maintenance.” At any other time, taking care of the equipment — replacing track, greasing bearings, work like that — would have been done on a schedule, steadily. In a cash-poor environment, those processes were put off, over and over again. If a subway car should be painted every three years, and at the end of three years there’s a budget shortfall, you can delay the job a fourth year, and almost nobody will notice. At five years, it’ll become evident; at seven, the train will look seedy. But it’s not the immediate effect that’s the problem. In that time, a little rust may get going under the paint, or mechanical parts will wear past the point of no return, and you will have invisibly but palpably shortened that subway car’s life. Deferred maintenance meant borrowing against the future. In many cases, the maintenance was deferred indefinitely — that is, nothing was replaced until it actually broke, even if that meant it might happen in the middle of rush hour, backing up the lines for miles.
The results were catastrophic. Trains were grinding to a halt; signals and lights failed constantly; trash on the tracks caught fire; doors jammed. There were (notes the subway historian Marc Feinman) hundreds of stretches of bad track on which motormen had to stay under 10 miles per hour. Flat spots on worn steel wheels made the trains far louder than they should have been. On older cars, some of which were approaching 50 years’ service, the rattan seating was breaking down, snagging commuters’ clothes and stockings. Even when clean new trains arrived in the early seventies, they turned out to have reliability problems. Ridership was plunging — in 1976, it was half what it had been in 1949 — and the nearly deserted stations in turn provided new opportunities for crime. The whole system looked like hell, and perpetually seemed to be getting worse.
It had all been graceful, long ago. In 1904, when the first line was opened by the private Interborough Rapid Transit Company, neoclassical ornament dominated. The architects, a firm called Heins & LaFarge, specified ceilings with bands of wedding-cake detailing between the structural arches. Ticket booths were oak, with bronze grilles. The stations received unique faience plaques along the walls — American eagles by the armory at 33rd Street, the Santa María at Columbus Circle, and (most eccentrically, and charmingly) beavers at Astor Place, commemorating John Jacob Astor’s fur trade. The station names themselves were rendered in mosaic tiles, with extraordinary delicacy of color and line. The stations built in the 1930s under another architect named Squire Vickers are more severe, but they too show the hand of an aesthete, and a machine-age strength that suits New York. The prevailing attitude is plain to see: The American century lies ahead, and this city is ready for it, with trains that run all night.
As the urban fabric rippled out into Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx, the train system that served it grew extremely complex. Two more networks were constructed, augmenting and eventually competing with the IRT: the city-owned Independent Subway (or IND), and the private Brooklyn Rapid Transit System, later reorganized as the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT). They quickly became essential. Yet, as World War I and then the Great Depression set in, all three struggled financially, owing to a city requirement that they keep the fare at a nickel. (There were no fare increases from 1904 to 1948, and it showed in the system’s shabbiness.) In 1940, after the IRT went bankrupt, all three were merged under municipal control, creating an organization that eventually became the New York City Transit Authority.
Because they’d been built separately, the stations were poorly knitted together, and navigating them was a kind of local craft, learned by feel and word of mouth. Yes, there were signs to tell you where to go, and yes, they helped a little. Most were white porcelain enamel on steel, though many of the large ones were forest green or cobalt blue. There was an artisanal beauty to them. The typography — although you can’t really call it “type”; it was more a version of handdrawn lettering — often varied in size, with small words like AND or VIA subordinated in size. Ornate arrows curled to indicate stairways or unusual exits. Names were often abbreviated in entertainingly weird ways: BL’KER ST. for Bleecker Street, FORD’M RD. for Fordham Road.
They were gorgeous, tactile objects. But as a way of getting you to your destination? This was the text you faced as you entered an IRT station (today’s 4 train) in Harlem or the southern Bronx:
I N T E R B O R O U G H
RAPID TRANSIT CO.
UPTOWN TO WOODLAWN.
DOWNTOWN VIA LEX. AND 4th AV.
TO GRAND CENTRAL, CITY HALL,
SOUTH FERRY AND BROOKLYN.
CHANGE AT 149th ST. FOR TIMES SQ.,
PENN STATION, SOUTH FERRY, WALL STREET
VIA BROADWAY AND 7th AVENUE.
TO SO. FERRY VIA 6th AND 9th AVE.
What? Why do I have to change for South Ferry when this train already goes to South Ferry? And do I change at 149th, or later on, to the 6th and 9th Avenue El? For god’s sake, I just want to get to Gimbels!
It was baffling, not to mention wildly inconsistent. (On this one sign alone, “Avenue,” “Ave.,” and “Av.” are all used, seemingly at whim.) Once you got downstairs, the situation was no better, with visual clutter in a few places and no direction in most others. New Yorkers were famous for their prideful hey-kid-you-gotta-learn-how-this-place-works toughness, but this almost deliberate obfuscation was taking it too far.
The great contrast was with London. There, an orderly signage system had been in place for decades. Beginning around 1908, the Underground Electric Railways Company of London — predecessor of today’s Transport for London, the public corporation that runs the Underground — began to rationalize its graphics, producing a map with color-coded lines and crisp sans-serif typography. Its signature barred-circle logo, called the roundel, soon followed. A few years later, in 1916, the Underground introduced Edward Johnston’s superb signature typeface, today called Johnston. In 1931 came a diagrammatic map, drawn (in his spare time, unpaid!) by a draftsman named Harry Beck. It mostly divorced the tube system from the ground above, spacing out the stations more or less evenly and making the map far easier to read.
The Underground’s bright enamel signage was (and in many ways remains) the gold standard in this field, much more thoroughly and uniformly deployed than New York’s. Then again, London had it easier. The Underground closes at night, allowing repairs to be made without fuss; New York’s subway never sleeps, and it’s more than twice the size. Besides, British budgeters had different attitudes and priorities. Rail held its own against rubber. Most of all, a system run as a public entity from the start, rather than one cobbled together from squabbling private companies, was bound to be more unified, with institutional continuity. Today, Harry Beck is a folk hero in London. There’s a historical marker on the house where he lived, and a railway carriage on one of the commuter lines is named for him.
By 1966, the New York City Transit Authority had recognized that it needed to do better. In the preceding decade, it had made fitful attempts to come up with a consistent signage system, and in 1958 the NYCTA published its first official map. It was much more literal than London’s — a true map, not a diagram. It showed lines in three colors on a dull naval-gray background. It doesn’t look bad at all, and it was moderately useful as a guide, though the small dense type required some squinting.
Its text used an array of typefaces, and, significantly, the names of landmasses and the title were set in one that carried the awkward name of Akzidenz-Grotesk. That font was sold in the United States under the name Standard, probably because the original sounded like a horror-movie title. “Accidents” and “grotesque” were not words English speakers associated with good design. (“Grotesque,” in typography, refers not to a gargoyle but to a sans-serif face with mild contrast between the thin and thick strokes; “neo-Grotesque” refers to one in which all the strokes are about the same width. It’s principally a British term, whereas Americans more often say “Gothic.”)
This was the era when graphic design itself, as a profession, was coming into its own. Typography and photography were superseding illustration in the advertising world. The crisp edges of European modernism were making their way into mainstream America. The much-discussed ads for Volkswagen that were produced by Doyle Dane Bernbach, starting in 1959, were an advance guard for what was to come: lots of white space, sans-serif type, no glamour pictures of heroic-looking cars, no exclamation points, just low-key black-and-white photos plus a bit of witty copy and a tiny VW logo in the corner. The most famous one, devoted to Volkswagen’s quality control, showed a car labeled “Lemon.” That’s a word you’d never have seen an automobile advertiser use a few years earlier.
The up-and-coming style of the sixties, emerging out of Basel and Zurich, was loosely referred to as “Swiss.” It was characterized by clean solid bright colors, typographic grids, simple and spare illustrations — often without shading, with monochrome color fields making up the graphics — and, especially, the sans-serif typeface called Helvetica. Surprisingly, Swiss designers themselves rarely used Helvetica until much later, but their acolytes everywhere else sure did. Look at an American magazine from the late sixties, and Helvetica will show up all over the ads, from the poster for Rosemary’s Baby to the slogan for Coca-Cola (“It’s the real thing”).
This idiom wasn’t completely new. Sans-serif faces akin to Helvetica were more than a century old — the first dates to about 1816 — and Akzidenz-Grotesk had appeared in 1896. Helvetica itself had been introduced in 1957, by the Haas Type Foundry in Münchenstein, under the name Neue Haas Grotesk. Within a few years, it (like Akzidenz-Grotesk) was renamed for marketing overseas, and in the process was explicitly linked to the burgeoning Swiss design movement. “Helvetia,” the Roman name for Switzerland, had often served as a unifying term for that polyglot country, and was the moniker of the secular goddess figure who appeared on its coins and stamps. Her name gained a serifless C, and that was that.
Although they are among the greatest popularizers of the Swiss idiom, neither Massimo Vignelli nor Bob Noorda was from Switzerland. Vignelli was Milanese, with all the continental flair that “Italian graphic designer” implies, and had done a stint in the United States with his wife, Lella, before going back to Italy. Noorda was Dutch, educated in Amsterdam and working in Milan as well. By the mid-sixties, both had high profiles in the design world, the Vignellis for the stackable plastic dinnerware they created for Arpé and Heller, Noorda for his work at Pirelli. In December 1964, they joined forces with six colleagues based in America to start a company called Unimark International. Vignelli soon moved back Stateside to run the New York office of what was becoming the world’s highest-profile design studio.
“Design studio,” though, was an image the partners wished to avoid. As Jan Conradi puts it in her definitive Unimark International: The Design of Business and the Business of Design,
The underlying problem, [Vignelli] and Noorda had already decided, was that large organizations did not trust small design studios. If designers wanted to have a major role in world communications and visual organization, they had to be taken seriously by corporate leaders… they needed to find a way to present themselves as professionals on the same large scale that top businessmen were accustomed to.
Or, as Vignelli himself put it: “We wanted to become the corporation that could deal with corporations.” They didn’t want to look like longhair aesthetes or wacky free-associating spirits. No, Unimark would be about orderly problem-solving — so much so that Vignelli cooked up a plan for the staff to wear white lab coats at the office, akin to the cotton smocks he saw on Italian factory workers. The idea didn’t stick, particularly among the Americans, who understandably thought it was ridiculous.
Unimark could also deal with city agencies. Just before co-founding the company, Noorda had done a great job creating the look of Milan’s own subway. The signage system he introduced is almost a prototype for New York’s: station names repeat in bands along the walls (so as to be visible from any car in the train), the lettering is white, and rail lines are distinguished by color. He didn’t use off-the-shelf Helvetica or Akzidenz-Grotesk, because neither was available in the medium weight he wanted. Instead, he drew a similar custom font of his own, basing it mostly on Akzidenz. He’d spent a lot of time considering typefaces that could be read quickly from various angles, as one walked down a long narrow platform or swept in on a train, and his, he believed, was the most legible. A similar system for Boston’s trains, designed by the firm Cambridge Seven Associates and using a lighter weight of Helvetica, was introduced the next year, and is still in place.
Unimark and the NYCTA made their deal in May 1966, and Noorda soon began hanging around subway stops, watching the flow of people and trying to pin down their points of confusion and decision. He and Vignelli presented their findings and some prototype signs soon thereafter. They looked quite a bit like what you see in the New York subways today, with some key differences. They used Standard Medium, not Helvetica. Backgrounds were white, not black. The signs were modular, with a steel rail along the top that allowed pieces to be attached as needed. The color scheme for the discs indicating individual lines included pinks and light blues that have since been dropped. (They were to be coordinated with a new map created by a Hofstra professor named Stanley Goldstein.) Nearly all the signage was built around one-foot-by-one-foot square pieces. The TA thanked (and paid) Unimark, and began to implement its recommendations.
Sort of. The actual road from Unimark’s specifications to 468 stations’ worth of Swiss-looking signage was so tortured that it is the subject of an entire book, Paul Shaw’s wonderfully obsessive Helvetica and the New York Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story. To recap it briefly: The city didn’t have the money or the motivation for a blanket graphics program, and certainly couldn’t afford to order thousands upon thousands of new signs through Unimark. So it took the basic principles Vignelli and Noorda had laid down, and had its own Bergen Street Shop — which did everything from painting to machining to welding — begin producing them. And Bergen Street was not accustomed to European modernism, or the processes required to reproduce Unimark’s precise designs. Bergen Street’s artisans — and they were skilled artisans — just kept working more or less as they had, hand-cutting stencils and in some cases handpainting letters.
For the old idiom in which they had worked, the result had been suitable, even beautiful. When it was applied to the rationalized, mechanical Unimark system, it looked awful. The Swiss typography came out gap-toothed and broken, with janky letters that almost appeared to be rattling. The steel rail that Unimark’s illustrators had specified along the top of each sign was misunderstood as a simple stripe, and was painted on.
In this early deployment of the Unimark system, the first few signs appear to have gone up on the platforms adjacent to a newly built rail link called the Chrystie Street Connection. A few stops were patched with new signage, instead of receiving complete overhauls. Old signs were sometimes left in place, muddling the message. When the Chrystie Street tunnel opened in November 1967, the train indicators were not yet matched up with the new signs, so nothing made much sense. Instead of a new rationality, the result was what Vignelli called “the biggest mess in the world.”
The NYCTA, to its credit, did not cut and run. Around the beginning of 1968 — shortly before it was merged with the region’s surface-transit operators, forming today’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, under New York State control — the TA signed up Unimark again, this time with a larger brief: a truly unified signage system, to cover the entire subway. It would specify guidelines for not only the look of the graphics but also where they belonged and why, system-wide.
The result, as you have no doubt figured out by now, was the Graphics Standards Manual, the book you see reproduced here. Issued in 1970 and running to 182 oversize recto pages in a big loose-leaf binder, it laid down rules for letterspacing and type size in any conceivable underground setting. The order of symbols — arrow, directional inscription, colored indicator disc — on every sign was specified. The arrows directing passengers around the stations were delimited: only eight styles (up, down, left, right, and four diagonals) were allowed, and their usages were tightly prescribed (no pairings!). Even the strokes of those arrows were refined. Using a standard trick of typography, they taper a few degrees as they meet, in order to avoid looking heavy and blotted. (They are, in other words, deliberately made irregular in order to fool the eye into thinking they are more regular.) One symbol that has fallen into disuse since then, a circled T indicating a NYCTA telephone, looks uncannily like the logo Boston uses for its whole transit system. There was a lot of attention given to the specifics of letterspacing and kerning, as was customary in these predigital days, especially as Unimark was trying to get the Bergen Street Shop to tighten up its work.
More important than these little visual refinements, though, are the efforts toward comprehensibility. The true goal of the Graphics Standards Manual is not just to pretty things up but to direct people intelligently and swiftly. The most valuable pages in the book may be the ones near the beginning devoted to wayfinding, showing the decision trees subway riders face as they enter a station. At the street level, a sign has to show passengers immediately that they’re at the right stop. Then, as they reach the bottom of the steps, more decisions: that’s where the maps appear. Further along, at the turnstiles, there’s branching: left and right, and signs marking uptown and down. Continue to the mezzanine level and the platform, and riders learn about transfers and exits. And so on and so forth, with the ranks of information reversed at the other end of the ride.
This is a very Internet-age approach to design. Website builders are always considering and reconsidering their sites this way: what visitors encounter as they arrive, what reveals itself with the next click, where the eye falls on the screen after that and what ought to be placed there. In fact, Vignelli used to refer to himself as an “information architect” — a term, rarely heard back then, that is now a standard job description at ad agencies and tech companies. Apple and Amazon deploy battalions of people to think this way. Even on this large job, Vignelli and Noorda and a few staffers did it on their own, and to a large degree got it correct on the first try.
A logical system required graphics that had been thoroughly thought through like this — so much so that they became simple again. In the Graphics Standards Manual, each subway line’s color, specified for both signage and map, was provided in the form of a glossy, grid-perforated sheet of ink chips that could be torn out as needed. That structural bar atop each sign was once again specified, with a note saying that any sign built in another manner should incorporate a stripe in its place, for consistency. Signs on the platform columns were to face the trains, instead of each other. Numbered streets usually had their particles stripped off (“81,” not “81st”), and abbreviations were shortened (“Av,” not “Ave”). Most punctuation was eliminated, to cut the typographic fuss against the signs’ clean white backgrounds.
Yes: Here, as in their earlier prototypes, Noorda and Vignelli specified black type on white grounds, instead of the white-on-black signage New Yorkers have come to know. It’s startling in its unfamiliar-familiarness, as if the house across your street that’s always been beige has suddenly been painted electric blue. It’s the one major way in which today’s graphics diverge from those in the book.
There’s another, subtler curiosity here, too. Unimark and especially Vignelli were perhaps the world’s biggest boosters of Helvetica. They used it for corporate trademarks, brochures, posters, to the point where people accused them of being monolithic. Yet for this, their most sprawling commission, they did not. The Graphics Standards Manual specified Standard Medium everywhere.
Admittedly, the two faces look similar, but they’re not the same, and once the distinctions are pointed out to you, they’re hard to unsee. (If you’re looking for the most visible signifiers, the two fonts’ capital Qs and Rs differ substantially. So do the sliced-off strokes at the end of the lowercase c and e and s: Helvetica’s are cut straight across, whereas Standard’s are angled.) Vignelli and Noorda certainly cared about distinctions like this. Why didn’t they specify Helvetica?
Well, for one thing, the MTA had already put up some of the new signs, and probably didn’t want to start over again. The detective work of Paul Shaw also strongly suggests that the Bergen Street Shop already had Standard Medium available in the right sizes, and didn’t want to spend money for new type and stencils. After all, most people can’t see the difference between the two typefaces; why bother with a new one?
The Manual is opaque about specifically why Standard was chosen, saying “Research has shown that the most ‘appropriate’ type face for this purpose is a regular sans serif. Of the various weights of sans serif available, Standard Medium has been found to offer the easiest legiblity from any angle.” Shaw speculates, almost surely correctly, that the phrase “has been found to” is a reference to Noorda’s research in Milan. (Vignelli was apparently disappointed that he couldn’t use his signature typeface, but acquiesced in order to get the whole project done.) Oddly, the running text of the Graphics Standards Manual — not the big images but the information you read — was itself set in Helvetica, which the printer must have had available at that small size.
On the MTA map of this era, first seen in 1967, the two typefaces co-exist in a weird mix. The names of the boroughs, for example, are set in Helvetica, yet the names of the bodies of water between them are set in Standard. The page is clotted with tiny type, some of it in still another face, News Gothic. There are too many colors and tints. It is a very cluttered and impenetrable visual document, a transitional design that did not incorporate much of Unimark’s rethinking.
For 1972, Vignelli next turned his energies to redrawing that map, and the result still gets people arguing to this day. (Although this began as a Unimark project, it didn’t end up that way: Vignelli left the business in 1971 as it began to disintegrate, done in by fractious partners and too much spending. Unimark declared bankruptcy just months later.) His version, credited to his new firm Vignelli Associates and largely worked out by his deputy Joan Charysyn, made its debut that August, and it unquestionably looked great. A groovy Italianate relative to Harry Beck’s London Underground diagram, it was even more schematic than its British cousin. Thick lines were drawn smoothly parallel like rainbow stripes, swooping up- and downtown, their transfer points demarcated with black dots, all their angles systematized to 45 or 90 degrees. (Vignelli got his all-Helvetica wish this time, too.) The diagram bore minimal resemblance to the surface above. Central Park was square, and Manhattan was mashed down from its usual breadboard shape to something like a whiskey flask. The harbor and rivers were pale beige.
It was certainly rational, and it made a fantastic poster, one that the Museum of Modern Art acquired. Nonetheless, a lot of subway riders hated it. Some of the problems had been beyond Vignelli and Charysyn’s control: too many colors, for example, made the map hard to read, but the team had been required to stick with the established scheme. Other questionable choices were all their own. One station (50th Street, on the 1 train) appeared to the west of the Eighth Avenue lines, when in real life it lay to the east. That confused people. As the various West Side lines nearly touched on the map, many riders made the reasonable deductive leap that their stations were also nearly adjacent, and thus found themselves taking a train that dropped them two crosstown blocks — nearly a third of a mile — from where they wanted to be.
Vignelli had made a key mistake, thinking that the London diagrammatic system could translate easily to New York. Londoners, though, typically traveled with the diagram and a physical map (the A to Z booklet, which you can buy at every newsagent’s), so they could navigate aboveground and below. New Yorkers, by contrast, had been using the subway map alone to do both jobs. Vignelli’s design succeeded at one role but flopped at the other. In that era, even a two-block miscalculation could mean the difference between a decent neighborhood and a dangerous one, especially after dark. A lot of people were fed up and fearful, and the new map was a place where they could push back.
To be fair, though, Vignelli had never intended it to work alone, and page 75 of the Graphics Standards Manual reveals its missing mate. Under the Unimark system, each major station would have contained a wall-size poster called the Directory. On it, every single station in the system would be listed — along with explicit instructions to get there. If you were at 77th Street on the Upper East Side, headed to Avenue U in Brooklyn, you would simply trace down the list to “Avenue U,” then read “6 Downtown to Bleecker Street, Transfer to F Downtown & Brooklyn.”
He had also specified a neighborhood street map in each station, and a line map in each subway car, both akin to the ones that are installed today. Since the wording on the Directory exactly mirrored the wording on the signage and the maps, all you’d have to do was match them up. The Directory — Vignelli called it a “verbal map” — was a brute-force solution, but it was a clear one that any tourist could understand. It also never got done.
Without the Directory or the other diagrams, the one in your pocket was an isolated island of stripes, a near-abstraction, attractive but not so useful. It was mocked at least as much as it was admired. You can just imagine what was going through old New Yorkers’ heads: Rainbows? Here? You gotta be kidding me. These foreign guys in their white lab coats — have they ever ridden the subway?
Vignelli kept defending it, in later years saying that his map would have succeeded if only he’d made two gestures to realism: an elongated Central Park, and blue rather than beige water. Nonetheless, it was doomed. It officially lasted seven years before being replaced by a busier, frumpier, more anchored, and more versatile map by Michael Hertz and John Tauranac. (Your opinions may differ.) Hertz’s team made a key innovation, usually credited to a designer named Leonard Ingalls: that lines sharing tracks for significant parts of the run — like the 1, 2, and 3 trains — should also share a color. This instantly clarified navigation, its only cost being that a commuter might easily step on an express train by accident, having glanced at the color but not the number.
Yet Vignelli’s map didn’t quite go away. The various reimaginings issued since 1979 do take visual cues from his. Two generations of graphic designers who admire it have absorbed its successes and learned from its failings. In 2008, at the request of Men’s Vogue, Vignelli’s design partners Yoshi Waterhouse and Beatriz Cifuentes redrew it, using Hertz’s simplified color scheme and adding four decades’ service changes and reconstructions. The result was clearer, and perhaps even handsomer, than his original. A limited-edition signed print sold out in minutes. And the MTA’s recent regional transit diagram, which includes New Jersey Transit and was drawn by Waterhouse, is based entirely on Vignelli’s model. Suburban commuters, after all, don’t need street-navigation cues at the outer end of the trip, since there’s usually a car waiting there.
Nor do deskbound computer users. In 2011, when the MTA needed to show weekend track work and station closures on its Website, it called upon Vignelli once again, and the result was a page called the Weekender, in which the stations on affected lines are indicated by blinking dots. It does its job impeccably, and has been portrayed as a vindication. Vignelli told the teacher and design critic Steven Heller that the original had been “created in B.C. (before computer) for the A.C. (after computer) era,” and maybe he was right. This time, the water is gray-blue. Significantly, at the top of the page it says not “Subway Map” but “Subway Diagram.” In Helvetica.
You’d like to think that, having paid for a book-length instruction manual, the MTA immediately went out and started hanging new signs. That didn’t happen. The fiscal crisis of the 1970s was taking hold, and the MTA could barely keep the trains running, let alone embark on a giant new program of interior decoration — especially, one imagines, when so many people were criticizing the map designed by the same guy. Instead, the changes once again rolled out in fits and starts, as stations were renovated and repairs made.
Very quickly, one alteration was made. The black-on-white signs gave way to the reversed ones we recognize today, and for the most prosaic of reasons. Black signs had been, in a simple test, revealed to be more readable in the dimness of a subway station. The white signs also got dirty fast. The vast amounts of steel dust thrown off by wheels and rails settled on their surfaces, and in the humid summer turned to rust. Graffiti, too, were more visibly disfiguring on white than on black. Around 1973, the agency decided to flip the colors, and the black signs began to filter out into the system, slowly, through the 1970s. The black line at the top of Unimark’s drawings — the structural rail that had been reduced to a design fillip — was retained, and flipped to white as well. The new versions began to trickle out of the Bergen Street Shop around 1975, and the changeover accelerated a few years later.
By that time, Unimark and Vignelli had wound up their work on the MTA’s planning. In their place, Michael Hertz’s firm, the same group that was redrawing the map, signed on with the MTA. Peter Joseph, one of the graphic artists from Hertz’s team, explains that Noorda and Vignelli’s system — as well thought-out as it is — didn’t answer a lot of questions that came up. It was a fine guide for working in brand-new construction, but not so flexible when an architect had to grapple with 70 years’ inbuilt legacy. For example, Joseph explains, “everything in the Unimark system is based on a one-foot-by-one-foot grid. But in a lot of places, there’s not enough clearance to hang a one-foot high sign from the ceiling. So what do you do then? The book doesn’t tell you anything.” (What you do, needless to say, is make a skinny little sign, grid be damned.) Unimark had discovered this bug, and others, soon after the original manual was published, and as early as 1971 it issued a booklet devoted to managing the particulars of the DeKalb Avenue stop. For decades to come, Hertz and Joseph and their colleagues were making similar adjustments that — although they might have driven Vignelli nuts — were suited to the actual physical subways of New York.
Slowly, gradually, the revised version of Vignelli and Noorda’s system, with Hertz’s augmentations and adjustments, was gaining traction. And in the early 1980s, Helvetica began to work its way onto the signs, mingling uneasily with Standard, the two used seemingly interchangeably. Mild revisions to the Graphics Standards Manual were issued in bound photocopied form in 1980 and 1984, and reflected the switch to white-on-black signage. The latter book showed Helvetica signs among the Standard ones.
That switchover became official in 1989, when the MTA’s architecture department declared that Helvetica was to replace Standard as the official typeface of not only the New York subways but the MTA at large. It was a somewhat surprising and even prescient choice. Many designers were rejecting the Swiss style right around then, thinking it dated. Yet the MTA went all in. Now the suburban commuter-rail systems, running mostly aboveground, would have uniform white signs with black Helvetica type, much like the old Unimark ones. The Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North’s signs were added to the manual, having been gradually unified under the same typographic family. That stillborn structural rail was now a colored stripe signifying the system in question, in dark blue on the LIRR, and red or green or medium blue on the three Metro-North lines. A full revision of what was now called the MTA Sign Manual was issued in 1995.
The graphics were finally coming together — and so were a lot of things about the subway. The 1980s were when the whole system began to be reconstructed after its awful decline. Money was beginning to flow back into the city, as the Wall Street boom contributed to the tax base. Tourism, aided by the boosterism of Mayor Edward Koch, was on the rise. So was the real estate business, with office buildings and condominiums going up all over midtown and those formerly abandoned downtown lofts becoming implausibly expensive residences. A program to eradicate train-car graffiti, and the sense of lawlessness that it brought, turned out to be amazingly effective. Maintenance was stepped up, and older trains were rehabilitated, gaining reliability. In a general, unquantifiable sense, the city seemed to have become aware that its transit systems could not be taken for granted much longer, and that they were necessary to its daily functioning. You can’t seriously argue that the graphics in this book fixed the New York City subway. But you can say this: An essential part of fixing the New York City subway involved making it comprehensible, and Noorda, Vignelli, and their successors can absolutely take credit for that.
Very often, systems like the one outlined in the Graphics Standards Manual are put in place and remain pure for a few years, then slowly decay. Staff members retire or leave, taking background knowledge with them, or new management makes decisions that (often inadvertently) corrupt the designs’ integrity. It happened here, too, in small ways. For awhile in the 1980s, column signs were set in condensed bold versions of Helvetica and Folio that match nothing else in the system. Some token-booth signs were made in italics, for no apparent reason. Around 1990, a test set of new signs appeared in the 42nd Street stop on the A/C/E lines: bright blue, with ugly white serif type and white borders on the indicator discs. Why? A new MTA executive wanted to make a mark, and instituted a pilot program. Mercifully, it ended there. Replacing everything yet again would have been a ridiculous way to spend many millions of dollars.
The whole system is imperfectly deployed, even after four-plus decades, and probably always will be. Too many decision points remain under- or unmarked. Rust, vandalism, errant swipes of paint, and fragmentary stickers disfigure a lot of what is there. Sometimes, low ceilings with hanging pipes and conduits make it almost impossible to see directions. The newest trains indicate their routes not with printed signs but with LEDs whose color can’t be changed, and thus (for example) the 6-train disc, which is supposed to be green, comes at you in bright red. The older porcelain-enamel signs are somewhat glossy, and advocates for the disabled note that the glare is tough on the vision-impaired. And the New York subway itself has many built-in unrationalizable elements. The larger stations are shambling labyrinths of platforms and passages, and all the signs in the world can’t unknot them. As good as the graphics are, plenty of people still get on the wrong train every day.
Yet a distance of 40-plus years has begun to give the Unimark system, and its successors, its due. Helvetica, once the hippest design choice in town, then ubiquitous, then tired, has come back into style. In fact, typography itself has become an object of amazingly wide fascination. (Credit for that goes largely to Steve Jobs, whose first Macintosh computer took the word “font” out of the design studio and put it on anyone’s desk.) A full documentary called Helvetica — yes, a featurelength film about a typeface! — was a festival hit in 2007, and Vignelli was its star presence. By then, he had pretty nearly become a celebrity, especially among younger designers who adored his uncluttered work. That may be because Vignelli’s aesthetic — as more than a few observers have noted — is easy to grasp and easy to love. His designs can look almost like children’s books or Fisher-Price toys, with bright colors and big fat grippable curves. His influence is everywhere in the retail world, from Apple to American Apparel. When he died in May 2014, praise came from every corner of the design world.
Variations on Noorda and Vignelli’s transit work work can be seen all over the planet. Chicago’s signage, Madrid’s map, the graphics in Amsterdam and Sydney and Hong Kong: all are based on two principal influences, London and New York. (Those in Washington, D.C. may seem especially familiar to New Yorkers, because they too were created by Vignelli. There, he got the blank slate he wanted, since the Metro was all-new.) Given the limitations of the New York City transit system, Unimark’s underlying mission — and Hertz’s after that — was to clarify things as much as they could be clarified, and in that they succeeded remarkably.
Not many copies of the first Graphics Standards Manual are known to exist. A few collectors have them, as do the Museum of Modern Art and the New York Transit Museum. In 2011, one showed up in, of all places, a basement locker at the Pentagram design studio, under a pile of someone’s crumpled gym clothes. Two young designers there, Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth, were struck by not only Vignelli and Noorda’s clarity of vision but also the book’s own spare beauty, and built a website to show the manual, page-by-page, to the world. The response among graphic designers, transit enthusiasts, and New Yorkers of all kinds was immediate — more than a million visitors in that first week — and that enthusiasm led to the limited-edition crowdfunded book you hold in your hands.
The particular copy you see here is not the one from Pentagram’s basement but Vignelli’s own, generously lent by his son Luca. The two books differ slightly: For example, in the Pentagram copy, the individual color chips are unmarked, whereas in Vignelli’s, they are printed with PMS numbers. And, on page 45, there’s a little addendum, presumably sketched by the man himself. He’s drawn, in black ink with white overpainting, an icon of an airplane. It was added to the book sometime before September 1978, when a new service to Kennedy International Airport began to run mostly on the A-train line. It was formally called the JFK Express, but if you were watching New York television commercials in those years, you almost certainly remember it from its insistent and memorable jingle: “Take the Train to the Plane! The Train to the Plane!”
The Train to the Plane didn’t make it to this century, but Vignelli and Noorda’s flexible, durable design scheme did. By and large, it’s still their thoughtful work that New Yorkers see every day, 40 years’ worth of tweaks and addenda and fixes notwithstanding. It’s fitting that the typeface in these pages is called Standard, because — even underground, among the bugs and bad smells — standards are what this infuriating, fantastic city holds its people to, and what they deserve in return. We don’t always get them, but this time, we did.
New York City
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Conradi, Jan. Unimark International: The Design of Business and the Business of Design. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2010. Print.
Feinman, Marc S. “History of the Independent Subway.” www.nycsubway.org. 1999, 2000. Web. 19 Sept. 2014.
Hood, Clifton. 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How they Transformed New York. 1993. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. Print.
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Lloyd, Peter B., with Mark Ovenden. Vignelli Transit Maps. Rochester: RIT Cary Graphic Arts Press, 2012. Print.
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Shaw, Paul. Helvetica and the New York City Subway System. Revised. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011. Print.
Text copyright © by Christopher Bonanos, a writer and editor at New York magazine. Bonanos is also the author of Instant: The Story of Polaroid (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012) and a biography of the news photographer Weegee (Henry Holt, forthcoming in 2017).
Note: This essay was included in the original Kickstarter facsimile edition of the Graphics Standards Manual.