The History of Helvetica in New York City’s Subway

by Christopher Paul on February 28, 2011

Maria Popova from Brain Pickings has me adding this book: Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story to the list of possible gifts for my graphic designer & native New Yorker wife.

The story begins with the ornate original mosaics, dating as far back as 1904, and their tangled mess of serifs, sans-serifs and various decorative elements that amounted to visual cacophony of the most overwhelming kind. So much so that in the 1960s, the city transit authority hired a design firm to overhaul the signage with more consistent typography, but the effort didn’t garner the public acclaimed it had aimed for. In fact, iconic New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger famously wrote that the city would be better off if the signs weren’t there at all. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Helvetica became ubiquitous, but what happened in those interim years has been the subject of much speculation and urban mythology.

I’ve never known the Subway signage to look any different than the way it does today and I’m interested in what things looked like before the fonts were standardized. I shouldn’t be so shocked that the sign design was a little chaotic, though. While it may look like one big system, New York’s Subway was once made up of several independent companies which had different track and car specifications that still exist today.

The Almost True Story of NYC’s Subway Helvetica – Brain Pickings

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