NYC Subway signs - before

Chaos to Order in the 20th Century: Helvetica and the NYC Subway

AIGA published this great little article recounting the tale of how the NYC Subway system went from a labyrinth filled with mosaic and hand-made signs in a variety of colors, sizes, styles, and more–to a highly organized signage system. They made it look so easy!

We’ve all been witness to the efficiency of this system so we don’t even think about it anymore. They made it look so easy! This is on of those articles that you want to print and read offline on a Saturday afternoon. And that’s just one of the design wonders that the 20th century brought into existence.

Mosaic subways signs (from the top): 1 train, Rector Street (1918); 1 train, South Ferry (1904); N/R/W, Prince Street (1917); “To 19th,” 1 train, 18th Street (1918); L, Morgan Avenue (1928); “Down town,” 4/5/6, 86th Street (1917); “Up town,” R/W, Whitehall Street (1918); E/F/G/R/V, Grand Avenue, Newtown (1936); M/R, F connection to 9th Street (1915) and BMT, Fourth Avenue (1933). Caption courtesy of AIGA.

NYC Subway signs - after
NYC Subway signs – after

(top and bottom rows): From the 1970 NYCTA Graphic Standards Manual, Unimark Design Consultants, a page indicating directional information, the cover and and typeface instruction using Standard, not Helvetica; (middle) “Donna” illustration of platform signage by Bob Noorda (c.1966, colorized in 2008). Caption courtesy of AIGA.

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