White on Black and Read All Over: New York City Subway Signage and Other Design Highlights (New York (NY), USA)

On the face of it, there’s not that much that the New York City Subway and the Newcastle Metro have in common. Yet after a few days spent travelling on the Subway, I realise that much like the Metro, it is the typography that remains my most abiding memory of the system. There are other design highlights down there too, so I thought you might like to join me for a look at some of them.

The Subway has a long history. It is amongst the oldest underground networks in the world; its first line opened in 1904. It is also amongst the world’s largest and busiest with 472 stations across 665 track miles, and an annual ridership of some 1.75 billion.

Like London’s Underground, it was developed by several private companies. Unlike London Underground, the roundel logo of which is famous across the world, the New York City Subway has no logo as such. The New York City Transit Authority tried some out, and a blue M was introduced in the late 1960s when the Transit Authority was acquired by the statewide Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), but it never really caught on.

M logo at entrance of York St station. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

The current MTA logo is a slightly underwhelming blue circle containing the letters MTA, and although it can be seen on New York’s buses and subway trains, it’s not widely used like the Underground/Transport for London roundel is in London.

Like London Underground however, the New York City Subway has a well-developed arts programme enlivening stations across the network. The Sky Reflector-Net at the Fulton Center (The Beauty of Transport 11 July 2018) is amongst the largest, but there are plenty of others around the Subway.

At one of the Subway’s newest stations, 34th Street-Hudson Yards, there is a huge mural in the ceiling of the below-ground concourse, and another over the escalators which lead down into it.

Funktional Vibrations artwork by Xenobia Bailey, at 34th St – Hudson Yards station. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

I also admired the “See it Split, See it Change” artwork at Whitehall St-South Ferry station, which takes the steel fences common in Subway stations, separating the ticketed areas from the non-ticketed areas, and does something really interesting with them.

See It Split, See It Change artwork by Mike and Doug Starn at Whitehall St-South Ferry station. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

As a long-established network, the New York City Subway has plenty of reminders of its early days, in particular heritage cartouches, and tiling that gives directions or station names. This is usually in the form of mosaic tiling, rather than the larger patterned tiles Leslie Green used on early London Underground stations. And if you like that kind of thing, I can heartily recommend historian and art tile collector Michael Padwee’s Architectural Tiles, Glass and Ornamentation in New York website.

Mosaic directional signage at 34 St – Herald Square station. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

But the New York City Subway has an identity very much its own. I have yet to experience a bigger, louder, more confusing and more apparently chaotic underground railway in all my travels. Extensive use of jointed track means trains clatter in and out of stations, or through them if the trains don’t stop there. The trains are enormously long and as they arrive and leave stations, there are loud announcements from the conductor which are not only deafening but near incomprehensible. No calm automated announcements here, but instead something with the cadence of a New York accent yet no discernible words (unless you’re Lily in How I Met Your Mother, who speaks fluent conductor).

This is a pity, because the Subway is one of those systems where you can really use all the extra information you can get. Most lines are served by both stopping trains (“locals”) and limited stop trains (“expresses”) and it’s all too easy as a newbie to get on an express and go sailing past the station at which you wanted to get off. Sometimes the express trains are on the middle two tracks of four, and then when you get off you discover that there are now only two tracks, because the local tracks have somehow shifted to a position a level above or below.

The Subway train routes themselves are bewildering too. A variety of lettered trains share the same tracks through Manhattan, branching off in countless directions at their extremities, or stopping short, or skipping various sections of the central route. And there’s no northbound/southbound eastbound/westbound nomenclature to help you out – like many other metro systems the Subway’s trains are named for their termination points. But if you have only a hazy grasp of New York’s geography, it doesn’t really help.

You’d think that the Subway map might be the place to turn, but it’s one of the most confusing I’ve ever had to use (always assuming you can find the single map somewhere along the length of the station platform).

You what’s that now? The New York City Subway map. Photo by airbus777 [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

Not only do you have to bear in mind the different symbols for local and express stations, but it’s a spaghetti-bowl of a map in the first place. It’s neither geographically accurate, nor rigidly diagrammatic, but some weird combination of both, rendering New York itself unfamiliar, and making it difficult to follow the squiggly lines across the map. Interchange stations seem to have several different names depending which line they’re on, like Bank/Monument on the London Underground, but everywhere. So you might be looking out for one station, only to find you’ve travelled through it because it was called something different on your line.

Maybe it would have helped if New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) had stuck with the “Vignelli Map”, introduced in 1972.

The Vignelli Subway map. Photo by Ilona Gaynor [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via this flickr page

It is one of those famous pieces of transport design which has lingered in the consciousness of New Yorkers, despite a relatively short life. It was replaced in 1978 by a map which is the direct ancestor of today’s.

The Vignelli map was conceived by designer Massimo Vignelli during the later stages of a separate project to renew the graphic identity of the Subway which began in the 1960s. The Subway’s development by several different companies had led to a fragmented approach to directional and information signage across its various lines. The design firm for which Vignelli worked at the time, Unimark International, was brought in to advise on how to sort out the mess.

Today, the Subway’s signs use Helvetica as their typeface. It’s one of the most distinctive transport uses of this typeface, more impactful even than its use by Lufthansa and American Airlines.

Plenty of Helvetica at 14 Street/8 Avenue station (IND Eighth Avenue line) (15 May 18). Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

Helvetica was drawn up in the late 1950s by Eduard Hoffman and Max Miedinger as a modernisation of an earlier typeface, Akzidenz Grotesk. It has become incredibly widespread to the point of ubiquity, so much so that an entire film has been dedicated to it: Helvetica (dir. Gary Hustwit, 2007). It’s widely assumed (not least because of Vignelli’s enthusiasm for Helvetica in the film) that Helvetica was specified by Unimark in its 1960s proposals. But that’s not what happened. Helvetica has really only been in widespread use on the Subway’s signage since 1989.

Unimark started by undertaking a comprehensive survey of selected stations to identify what directional signage needed to be placed where. I find this somewhat difficult to believe, given the number of times I got to the top of a staircase and searched fruitlessly for a sign pointing me towards either the next line I needed to travel on, or to the correct exit. I presume it’s easier if you have some basic familiarity with the system. But back to the story.

Unimark’s first attempt to develop a standard signage system was intended to employ a modular system, with signs suspended from metal channels. It used black text on a white background. To indicate the area of the signs which would be hidden by the metal channels, Unimark added a black strip along the top of their drawings. Unimark wasn’t initially given a contract to draw up a complete design manual for the Subway, and the signage resulting from Unimark’s proposals was produced by the Subway’s in-house sign shop, which misinterpreted the black strip as a design element, faithfully reproducing it so that it could be seen on signs which in the end were applied without the metal channels at all. It was an accident that led to one of the most distinctive features of the Subways signage, and it later spread to surface metro rail operations of the MTA, the stripe coloured differently according to the particular rail network in question.

Poughkeepsie station sign, with green stripe, Metro North Railroad. Photo by Adam Moss [CC BY-SA 2.0] via this flickr page

Production of the new standard signage was slow, and not very consistent, and Unimark was eventually contracted to produce a full design manual with the aim of speeding up sign production through standardised templates. It appeared in 1970, but most strikingly it didn’t use Helvetica, despite the typeface’s seemingly indelible association with the Subway today. In fact the chosen typeface was Standard Medium, despite Vignelli’s personal enthusiasm for Helvetica. It’s not absolutely clear why Helvetica wasn’t used for Subway signage (Vignelli did use it on his Subway map). It is assumed that the cost of acquiring it for the Subway’s sign shop was a factor; the sign shop already had Standard Medium available.

During the 1970s, the Subway’s management decided to reverse the signage colours to increase visibility (Vignelli meanwhile apparently claimed it was in response to concern over graffiti attacks), and the new arrangement was codified in a revised Graphic Standards Manual, produced in-house in 1980. The black line at the top of the first Unimark signs was now rendered as a thin white line separating off the area that was originally intended to be hidden in metal channels that were never used.

It was not until a further revision of the graphic standards manual (the not very catchily titled MTA Sign Manual New York City Transit Authority Long Island Rail Road Metro-North Commuter Railroad by Michael Hertz Associates) in 1989 that Helvetica was designated as the Subway signage’s official font. The fact that it was used on printed publicity earlier, and in particular on Vignelli’s 1972 Subway map, perhaps accounts for the belief that Helvetica has been on the Subway’s signage for longer than it actually has.

Subway signage on entrance to Broadway-Lafayette Subway station (19 May 18). Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

The reversal of the original signage colour scheme and the use of the thin white line have led (quite accidentally in the case of the latter element) to today’s Subway’s distinctive signage. With large white text on a black background, and coloured line icons bringing focussed and dramatic patches of colour, the Subway’s signs are its most distinctive design feature. You’d think white on black signage would be more common on transport networks around the world, but it is unusual enough to appear very eye-catching when encountered on the Subway. While I’m sure there are other examples out there that you’ll be able to tell me about (the comments section is at the end) the only other one that springs to mind is the recently refurbished signage on the Newcastle Metro (The Beauty of Transport 19 April 2017).

Subway signage with coloured line icons at Grand Central Terminal. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

This distinctive signage is particularly important in New York. The vast majority of sub-surface Subway stations have little more than balustraded entrances with lighting globes at the top of the stairs. They would be nearly invisible against the street clutter of New York were it not for the distinctive signage attached. (Just to confuse matters, some entrances only give entry to a single platform at a station, so you do actually have to read the signage to make sure that the entrance is giving you access to the trains you actually want to catch; it took me quite some time to realise that…)

Entrance to 28th St station. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

Because New York has no exact equivalent to Transport for London’s roundel, and the MTA’s logo is understated and used sparingly across just the Subway and the city’s buses, it is the Subway’s line symbols and Helvetica that represent the ‘look’ of New York in transport terms. Though the use of Helvetica might be more recent than is generally realised, it is nevertheless almost universal on the Subway’s signage today, except for the heritage tiled signs that remain scattered around stations.

Helvetica is cool, clear and calm, in stark contrast to the Subway itself. Despite its recent introduction, it has firmly established itself as part of New York’s urban scenery. Although most of the bus network doesn’t reflect the Subway’s use of signage, where it does (as on the covers of bus maps) it looks very stylish, and very New York.

New York Subway and bus map covers. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

White Helvetica on a black background, highlighted with vivid line colours, has gone beyond its utilitarian function on the Subway, and entered more widely into the perception of New York itself. Just as London Underground’s roundel and Johnston/New Johnston/Johnston100 typeface have spread across London souvenirs as being distinctively London in appearance, so have the coloured line symbols and white Helvetica on black background on tourist products in New York. I had to be dragged out of the shop in the New York City Transit Museum, which is full to the brim with examples…

Bibliography and Further Reading

Garfield, Simon (2010): Just My Type. Profile Books, London

Article on the history of Helvetica on the Subway, via the website of AIGA, the professional association for design (I leaned very heavily on this one; it’s well worth a read if you want the full story), here

…and anything linked to in the text above.

4 thoughts on “White on Black and Read All Over: New York City Subway Signage and Other Design Highlights (New York (NY), USA)

  1. LA Metro’s wayfinding signage has long utilized white text on a black background, and to a lesser or greater degree, Barcelona, Lisbon, Munich, and Singapore (some signage uses mixed color backgrounds to indicate lines).

    1. The classic signage on the Montréal Métro is also white on black, a surprisingly distinctive condensed all-caps Univers, which I believe they are phasing out in favour of something more empirically legible.

      White Univers (in various weights and treatments) on black was one of infamously many signage styles used in the San Francisco BART system, which similarly is being replaced now with generic white-on-black Frutiger (on platforms). The typographic mishmash remains throughout the system, and I can’t help wishing they’d doubled-down on the retro extended bold Univers. (Not that it works well with BART’s current preference for long station names with slashes and parenthetics.)

      Another SF/Montreal parallel is a system map on a black background; Métro uses it almost exclusively as I recall, and SF’s Muni uses it in conjunction with a white-background version. Montreal’s version is infinitely more striking, mainly due to the colours but also to their full commitment to the map’s stylistic conventions; anything the Bay Area does in transport seems noncommittal and tepid, even compared to our neighbour in car-obsessed California, the LA Metro.

  2. I like your font take on our beloved and infuriating subway. I never knew that the black and white was so unique. I like the subway entrances that look like they’re inside of a store, like the one at West 4th 🙂

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