Blue Pencil no.7—Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The (Mostly) True Story

Blue Pencil has gained a reputation for hyper-vigilance in looking for errors of all kinds in design books. This does not mean that I expect such books to be completely error-free. That is an unreasonable expectation. Errors are inevitable. They are part of human nature and the products that humans make. However, it is the sheer number of mistakes, from the trivial to the substantive, in so many books today that originally goaded Blue Pencil into being.

From Blue Pencil’s inception I knew that a day would come when I would find myself on the wrong end of the pencil point. That day has come. I recently self-published Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The (Mostly) True Story under the imprint of Blue Pencil Editions. I did the research, wrote the text, copy-edited it, photographed most of the images, and—in collaboration with Abby Goldstein—designed the book. Abby and James Puckett helped me with the proofreading but, in the end, any responsibility for errors is mine alone. And apparently there are some.

The first was discovered by Lucia McCreery, a former typesetter and proofreader who has gone on many of my New York City lettering tours over the past few years. I misidentified a typeface, an error that does not affect the thesis of my book but which is nonetheless galling.

On p. 111, image no. 237 is identified as “Porcelain enamel column sign. Hoyt-Schermerhorn Streets (A/C/G), c.1986. Set in Helvetica Inserat. (2009).” (The latter date is that of the photograph.) Lucia, who lives near that station, has been intrigued by this sign. After buying my book she decided to recreate it on her computer. “Adding a rule to the Hoyt sign led me down a real garden path, results attached herewith,” she emailed me. “I went back to your book to get the proper specs, and this led me to a discovery I regret to pass along. The signmakers seem to have strayed from Helvetica/Standard entirely and used Folio Bold Condensed for the Hoyt and South Ferry signs. This ID thanks to the trusty typeface comparison guide that I made up at Cardinal*, and then some overlays in Quark to confirm it. Among other things, the lower-case t on the Hoyt and South Ferry [signs] have off-center crossbars, but so does one of the Helvetica Bold signs on one of the Transit Authority buildings in your book, also attached.” She finished with, “Sorry, but please don’t shoot the messenger!”

I did not shoot the messenger. Instead, I chalked up Lucia’s initial problem in trying to recreate the Hoyt sign using Quark to differences between the digital incarnation of the font and its phototype predecessor. But then she sent me this message: “Hel Inserat [Helvetica Inserat] is certainly close, but Folio BC [Folio Bold Condensed] is closer. The most visible difference is in the lc [lowercase] t, but there are others. The arms on the crossbar are of equal length on Hel Inserat; Folio BC (and also Standard) have shorter arms on the left and longer ones on the right, as in the Hoyt and South Ferry signs. I did overlays too (new type on top of pictures of the signs) because I wanted to be sure….”

I still refused to believe she was right. I thought that Cardinal may have gotten its phototype from Visual Graphics Corporation, Compugraphic, Alphatype or some other source besides Linotype, the owners of the Helvetica copyright. Maybe that explained the tiny discrepancies she had found. But when I checked my copy of the Linotype Collection: Mergenthaler Type Library (Eschborn bei Frankfurt: Linotype GmbH, 1986)—the ultimate Linotype source from the phototype era—I found that Lucia was still right. The key letter differentiating Helvetica Inserat and Folio Bold Condensed is the t and the difference is in the length of the crossbar. I had missed this because I had focused on the r and y in South Ferry as distinctive. I ignored the t. My mistake.

“The important thing (to me),” Lucia has recently told me, “about the Hoyt sign is not the (understandably) misidentified typeface but the MTA’s departure from Helvetica—and the fact that it was expanded 5%, unlike the South Ferry sign.” This is something that I did not notice, but does not surprise me as I have suspected several other signs in the subway system have been subjected to slight condensing or expanding.

*Cardinal refers to Cardinal Type Service, Inc., a major New York City type house in the phototype era.

This is not the only mistake in Helvetica and the New York City Subway System, though the most significant. Unfortunately, those who have told me that they have found other errors have so far refused to tell me what they are. But I have found several errant hyphens in the book and Lucia has found a few others. They are: p. 70 “un-willing”; p. 93 “estab-lish”; p. 103 “Compu-graphic”; and p. 103 “disappear-ed”. I hope there are no others as I really hate such misplaced hyphens when I see them in other books.
When other mistakes in Helvetica and the New York City Subway System are noted, I will post them here.

The typeface images are courtesy of Lucia McCreery.