Paul Shaw, Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story, Cambridge (MA): MIT Press, 2010.
As explained by Paul Shaw in the introduction to his Helvetica and the New York City Subway System, the book is a history of the subway system, of transportation signage, of Unimark International (the company which produced the signage system in the 1960s), and of Helvetica. Contrary to popular belief, the new, modern signage in the New York City subway system, signage which was introduced in the late 1960s, was not always in Helvetica. Rather much of it was in Standard. The story about why this was the case begins with an overview of the development of the city's subway system, as well as its signage. Both the system, which was eventually composed by 1940 of an amalgamation of three different companies that had operated separate lines, and the signage were, what Shaw terms, "a labyrinth." There was little uniformity to the signage of the various systems, with different typefaces, colours, and sizes used throughout. Signage was maintained if it continued to fulfill a function, often regardless of whether it was inconsistent with other signs.
The problem of the mess of signage in the subway system was first raised in 1957 by George Salomon, a typographic designer at Appleton Parsons & Co. Submitting an unsolicited proposal to introduce a standardized signage system, colour-code the subway lines, and remove any distinctions between the three original subway company lines, his report was largely shelved by the New York City Transit Authority, with the exception of his subway map design. The map had been heavily based upon that of the London Underground by Henry Beck. However the NYCTA did not colour code each line, but only made the three original separate systems different colours. The map which was used also ignored Salomon's suggestion to only use the Futura typeface, which he believed was the most legible typeface available at the time.
While Solomon's suggestions were largely ignored, they predated interest in the 1960s among urban planners, architects, and graphic designers in systematic signage for cities, highways, airports, railways, and subways. 1960 saw the publication of Nicolete Gray's Lettering on Buildings and 1961 Mildred Constantine and Egbert Jacobson's Sign Language for Buildings and Landscapes. While Grey did not discuss transportation signage and Constantine and Egbert largely focused upon above-ground signage when discussing subway signs, these books marked a rise in the design community's interest in how locations and directions for unified systems are presented to the public, including a recognition that systematic and clear signage allows people to easily recognize that certain signs deal with the same subject or system, and are therefore are to be paid attention to if one is interested in that subject or using that system.
Shaw explains that one of the reasons why Gray, Constantine, and Egbert failed to focus upon subway signage as examples was that there existed few examples of subway systems which has a unified signage system. Indeed, the only standardized system was the London Underground, which had made use of the Johnston Railway Sans throughout its system since 1916.
The first transportation sign system to embrace the idea of standardization in the 1960s was the system for the Oceanic Building (now Terminal 3) of London's Heathrow Airport. The signage was simple, consisting of black letters on a white background, as well as arrows. The typeface was a modified version of Standard which is very similar to Helvetica, which the designers, Colin Forbes and Matthew Carter, did not know already existed. Elements of the signage system of the Oceanic Building were reproduced in other transportation sign systems of the 1960s, including that of the Milan Metro, designed by Bob Noorda. Aware of the existence of Helvetica, Noorda modified some of its letters to create a unique typeface which was used on standardized, easily readable and identifiable signs.
In 1965 Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert of Kinneir Calvert Associates produced the Rail Alphabet for British Railway in 1965, which was a modified version of Helvetica. It was packaged with new arrows and a new British Railways logo as the corporation's new corporate identity in 1965.
Other signage systems of the period included that for Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport and the Boston subway system. All of these signage systems either made use of Helvetica or Helvetica-like typefaces, the Boston redesign being the first to use Helvetica without any modifications.
Following the 1964/5 Worlds Fair in New York, the NYCTA was embarrassed into doing something to improve the image and information of its graphics and signage. In 1964 a map competition was launched to design a more usable and understandable map which, like the London Underground map, made use of colours for the different lines. However, of the only nine maps submitted, none were chosen as a winner. The best of the nine was viewed as too complex to be used by the general public. A professor of engineering at Hofstra University, Prof. Stanley A. Goldstein, was then hired to design a usable map which would overcome the system's problems. Six months later he submitted a report which not only offered ideas about a new map, but suggested the redesign of the train designations, car information, and station information. While the NYCTA did not immediately follow his suggestions, the report did influence the eventual hiring of Unimark International to redesign the system.
A comparison of the London, Milan, and New York City subway signage systems was conducted in the September/October 1965 issue of Print magazine by the industrial designer William Lansing. Lansing attacked the New York signage as dirty and disorganized, while praising both London and Milan. Interestingly, no comparison was made of the newly redesigned Boston system. In particular, Lansing praised Noorda’s use of a modified grotesque in the Milan signage design.
Unimark International, an international design consultancy, was established in New York by a Milanese graphic designer, Massimo Vignelli, along with Ralph Eckerstrom. The idea behind the company was to unite American marketing to European modernist design. Other founding members included Bob Noorda (designer of the Milan Metro signage), Jay Doblin, James K. Fogleman, and Larry Klein. The former Bauhaus student, Herbert Bayer, worked as a consultant, a connection that gave legitimacy to the organization which was claiming to have modernist roots.
Soon after the firm was established, it was approached by the NYCTA to advise the authority on signage and to help assess Prof. Goldstein’s report. The idea for the authority to approach Unimark had been advanced by Mildred Constantine, who was the Associate Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at the MoMA. Not only had Constantine been interested in public signage for many years, publishing Sign Language for Buildings and Landscape in 1961, but she was familiar with the members of Unimark and their work. Submitting a report by September 1966, Unimark designed a new signage system for the New York system based on a study of several of the city’s major stations. The system used three different sizes of type for different levels of information, and the different lines were colour-coded, as Goldstein had suggested in his report. The new modular signage system conformed wit the demand of the NYCTA that no structural changes could be made to the system’s stations to accommodate new signage. Once presented, however, this new signage system was apparently forgotten by the NYCTA, which did not move to advance the adoption of the new signage system.
Not having the money to have Unimark create a proper sign manual and implement the new signage designs, the NYCTA planned to try and follow Unimark's suggestions and have their in-house sign shop create new signage. The result was an improperly implemented and designed sign system. Unimark was not even allowed to give additional guidance or advice. While the in-house sign makers were intent on making the signs themselves, they were not particularly concerned with how they would function as an all-encompassing sign system. While lack of money is the main explanation for why the TA would not let Unimark oversee the implementation of the signage recommendations, Shaw suggests the predetermined decisions and plans of the TA bureaucracy, labour union rules, and other political forces would have played a role. In particular, he suggests that the TA would not have likely been willing to upset the transit worker's union, which could help feed labour disruptions similar to that of January 1966.
The new signage was introduced, along with colour-coded maps, with the opening of the Chrystie Street Connection in November 1967. However, without being overseen by people who were principally interested in signage systems and how they helped people find their way, the introduction was a disaster. Confusion reigned. Many old signs had not been removed, and hand drawn cardboard signage had to be used to let commuters find their way. Not only were there not enough of the Unimark inspired signs, but the letters and signs on the trains did not match the new signs. It was not enough for the TA to just install some new signs, it required the entire sign system proposed by Unimark. Furthermore, a symposium on transportation graphics was held at the MoMA on Oct 23, 1967 which was attended by members of the Unimark staff. It was thus, quite clear to the NYCTA that their signage was inadequate. Thus, either in the fall of 1967 or early in 1968 Unimark was rehired to create comprehensive guidelines for signage production and installation. The NYCTA carried out a survey of its existing signage and determined how many new signs would be needed and where they should be placed according to the guidelines. By the end of June 1968, new signs had been installed at over 100 stations and old signs were removed.
As Shaw explains, the font used for the signage was Standard Medium, which, according to the Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual was shown by research to be the best sans serif which can be read at any angle. That research also allegedly showed that a quickly and easily read sign is best if it is in a regular sans serif. However, Vignelli, the main force behind Unimark, has claimed that he had wanted to use Helvetica for the NY subway, but that it was not available. Indeed, in the film Helvetica he claims that he had been a life-long fan of the font. Given this confusion, Shaw attempts to explain why Helvetica was not initially used by examining both the details of the subway design project and the availability of various fonts in the United States during the 1960s.
In his section on "The Myth of the Helvetica Juggernaut" Shaw attempts to clarify the reality of Helvetica in the US which many seem to have forgotten in the wake of the celebration of its 50th anniversary. He explains that during the 1960s, European typefaces were imported by only two companies. Amsterdam Continental and Bauer Alphabets. Bauer Alphabets was owned by Bauersche Giesserei of Frankfurt am Main, which had been established in New York since the 1920s and had been responsible for introducing Futura to the US. Amsterdam Continental was a subsidiary of Lettergieterij Amsterdam, and it carried fonts by Berthold, Stempel, Klingspor, Haas and Nebiolo, as well as those produced by Lettergieterij.
Amsterdam Continental had begun importing Standard in 1957, and Baur Alphabets responded by advertising Folio to the graphics design community. In response to these European companies, the American Type founders started importing Univers, which became machinetypeable on monotype machines in 1961. ATF was also selling its popular News Gothic and Franklin Gothis. Likewise, Mergenthaler Linotype began to advertise Trade Gothic.
Helvetica, however, was not designed until 1957, when it was created by the Hass foundry, conceived by Eduard Hoffmann, and drawn by Max Miedinger. It was licensed in 1960 by D. Stempel AG of Frankfurt and renamed Helvetica from the original Neue Hass Grotesk. Stemple produced the foundry type, while German Linotype made it available in matrices in light and medium. As Shaw suggests, this is likely why Noorda was not able to find a usable version of Helvetica for the Milan Metro in 1962 and had to alter elements of Helvetica to get the desired effect.
In the early 1960s fonts were not computerized, but were physical. They were either physical lead stamps which needed to be forged, or they were in composition versions, where they could be reproduced by graphic designers. Designers could only use what typefaces were locally available through printers or type houses. Importing forged type was expensive, and European type punches also needed to be customized to fit American printing presses. The only sans serifs which were widely available in the early 1960s were Futura, News Gothic, Franklin Gothic, Standard and Univers. If sizes were not available, or the right letter could not be found, designers sometimes needed to use combinations of fonts for their work.
Helvetica was introduced to the American market in 1963, announced through an advertisement in the November/December issue of Print magazine. However, the font was not instantly successful, partially because of technical problems. Introduced by Stemple's pica-point system and Linotype's matricies, the matricies did not align with American ones and could not be used. This problem was fixed in early 1964 when Mergenthaler Linotype began producing the font in the United States. However, only the 10 pt stamp version was released at first. Other sizes were not completed for another year. Furthermore, the Visial Graphics Corporation began offering new typefaces which were similar to Helvetica and which could be used on their Typositor system. In response, Mergenthaler began work on Linofilm Helvetica in 1965 for the Linofilm system, but did not complete it until 1967.
Helvetica did not become widely used in the US until the late 1960s, and it even took New York designers several years to begin using it regularly. The font was used in highly praised advertisements and designs by 1965, but these were largely those done by Unimark, the CCA in Chicago, and MIT.
In the case of Unimark, Vignelli had brought his love of Helvetica with him from Italy. He liked how the letters could be easily set close together. The font, which was increasingly available in different sizes and which could be used with a growing number of typeface printing systems, soon became the house font of Unimark and was widely used by its graphic designers. It was thought to be more harmonious, and thus pleasing, in design than its main rival, Standard, because all of the terminals ended at right angles.
In his section "Standard, Helvetica and the New York City Subway System", Shaw explains that by the time Unimark had gained its initial contract with the NYCTA in 1966 Helvetica was widely available in New York in a number of formats. However, the producers of the signs, the NYCTA's Bergan Street Sign Shop created its signs by hand and by silkscreening, and it also produced the artwork for porcelain enamel signs. (The signshop did not produce the porcelain enamel signs. That was done by an outside vendor, the Nelke Sign Manufacturing Corporation.) The NYCTA sign shop likely based the Standard hand-cut stencils upon either font books or the fonts supplied by outside typehouses. Many of those type houses would not have yet introduced Helvetica given both the expense and that most people cannot tell the difference between the two typefaces. In addition, at the time, no American type book included Helvetica in 1966.
In the initial attempt at introducing the new signage, the sign shop had tried to make the signs themselves by hand-cutting the stencils used for the signs and painting them by hand. This led to some letters being inconsistent.
Within Unimark, Noorda was not as committed to Helvetica as was Vignelli. This is evidenced by Noorda's use of what is often described as a modified version of Helvetica for the Milan Metro, but which could also be described as a modified version of Akzidenz Grotesk (Standard). Given that the New York sign system was heavily based upon Noorda's Milan system, Shaw suggests that the choice of Standard was made by Noorda and that Vignelli likely agreed given both the technical problems of obtaining and using Helvetica at the time, as well as the greater importance he likely placed upon having the sign system implemented than upon using a particular font. While the typeface could have been changed with the new contract of late 1967 or early 1968, Vignelli again likely placed more emphasis upon having the sign system implemented than changing the font. Furthermore, with some signs already made in Standard, changing the font would only have introduced more inconsistency. Shaw also notes that Vignelli had other opportunities to use Helvetica while at Unimark. He was commissioned to create a signage manual for the New York City Planning Department, as well as the Washington Metro. Both signage systems were created without the input of Noorda and both used Helvetica.
In 1968 the MNCTA was absorbed into the newly created and larger Metropolitan Transit Authority. The MTA announced plans to extend the New York City subway system and to beautify the city's stations. While this should have led to more standardized and widespread implementation of the Unimark signage system, that was not the case. Rather, in the early 1970s the city encountered financial difficulties, having to be saved from bankruptcy in 1975. This, combined with the size of the system, led to signs only being replaced on an ad hoc basis. by the late 1970s the signage system was still not standardized, but was a mixture of new signs, old signs, as well as inadequate signage.
Along with inadequate signage, the 1970s also saw the deterioration of the New York City subway system. Overcrowded and dirty, suffering from financial difficulties, and plagued by graffiti, the MTA did not concentrate upon improving signage, but rather, simply keeping the system from falling apart.
In 1975 a new subway map was commissioned which would replace the one designed by Vignelli only four years before. The reasons for the redesign was to produce a map which was more geographically accurate and which would indicate part-time service. The new map required changes to the colours on the rest of the systems signage, as well as the addition of new signage symbols. Introduced in 1979, the new signs differed from the Unimark signs designed in 1966 and codified in the 1970 design manual. Routes were now indicated by both circles and diamonds and the black line at the top of the signs was removed. However, the font was still Standard medium. The colours of the signs were also reversed, with the letters now being black on white. While Vignelli explains this change to have been done so as to more easily fix signs which are tagged, the MTA claimed that it had been done for reasons of legibility, a change which the MTA had been contemplating since 1972. All of these changes were made, by hand, in the original 1970 design manual. A significant addition to the manual was a note which said that for the route disks and diamonds (diamonds indicating routes which are only serviced at certain times), if a "J" is used, the Standard "J" was to be replaced by the Helvetica "J". This is the first reference to the use of Helvetica in the signage system.
Launched in 1979, it took most of the 1980s for the new signage system to be fully implemented. Again, this slow and confusing process was largely the result of budgetary constraints and the size of the subway system. However, an improving economy in the 1980s and capital investment programs meant that by the end of the decade most of the revised Unimark signs could be found throughout the system. In the interim sticker decals were often used to improve the visibility of many of the signs.
Another revised version of the Graphics Standards Manual was produced in 1984. More detailed and professional than the 1979 version, the manual did not announce any changes in the typeface to be used. However, several of the examples make use of Helvetica rather than Standard, and Shaw suggests that this may have resulted in some new signs being produced in Helvetica, although he admits that this has not been verified. Furthermore, the Bergan Street sign shop was not involved in the production of subway signs by this time. Rather, all sign designs were made by the hired signage consultants, Michael Hertz Associates, who had created the 1984 design guide. The signs were produced by outside porcelain enamel manufacturers.
In the section "Helvetica Infiltrates the New York City subway System" Shaw explains that the myth that Helvetica was widely used in the New York City Subway began with a 1976 article in the Village Voice by Leslie Savan, "This Typeface Is Changing your Life." In addition to incorrectly claiming that Vignelli was responsible for the signage system, she failed to explain the role of Unimark and conflated the MTA's signage and printed material, the latter of which typically did use Helvetica. She claimed that the system used a mixture of Standard and Helvetica throughout.
Shaw explains that the use of Helvetica in the MTA's printed material stemmed from it's 1973 "MTA Gets You There" campaign, which was designed to increase ridership. This material used a mixture, consciously or not, of Standard and Helvetica. Furthermore, Vignelli, who was largely devoted to Helvetica, had used the font on his 1974 subway map as well as for the text of the 1970 Graphics Standards Manual. While he has claimed that he simply "forgot" to use Standard, Shaw suggests that Vignelli purposefully chose Helvetica so as to try and introduce it into the signage system. He claims that the MTA likely did not complain about this inconsistency since Helvetica had appeared sporadically in various printed materials since 1967.
In 1989 a new graphics standard manual was produced for not just the subway system, but the entire MTA system. Produced for the MTA Marketing and Corporate Communications Division by Michael Hertz Associates, the manual specifically forbade the use of any other typeface other than Helvetica. It was praised by the MTA Chairman as a step towards a system-wide standardization of signage. Older signs were allowed to remain where they still functioned, but all new signs were to be in Helvetica.
Shaw questions why Helvetica would have been chosen as the official typeface in the 1980s. By that point the widespread usage of the font in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s had caused many to view it as boring, unoriginal, and uninspiring. Furthermore, the rise of postmodern design had caused many designers to recognize that claims that the modernist typeface was "neutral" or "rational" were simply one perspective, and that such claims to universally recognized qualities were untenable.
However, in response to these reasons why Helvetica would not have been a popular choice at the time, Shaw points out that by the 1980s several other elements of the MTA's operations, particularly commuter rail lines, were already in Helvetica. A second reason for its adoption is that MTA busses increasingly had LED displays, which made the use of neither Helvetica not Standard possible. Finally, the design options for sign design were much broader by the late 1980s than they had been in the 1960s, but these options no longer easily allowed for the use of Standard. There existed a wide array of means by which signs could be designed, including computer based systems. Yet, the only typeface which was available on all of these systems (possibly because of its over-use in the 1970s) was Helvetica. Standard had largely disappeared as a widely available design typeface.
While officially introduced in 1989, the true Helveticization of the subway system did not occur until 1992 when a multi-year station renovation program was introduced that included systematically identifying older signage and replacing it with newer versions. Shaw concludes his book by noting that the Unimark signage, now sporting Helvetica rather than the original Standard (a change which would likely have been originally preferred by Vignelli) is now as much an integral part of the New York subway system's visual identity as the original mosaic signs.