Blue Pencil no. 14—Salon Manicure

Claire Lambrecht of Salon interviewed me on April 5 about my book Helvetica and the New York City Subway System. It was a very cordial interview. She asked me several questions and then let me ramble, uninterrupted before her next question. The whole interview, which took about an hour, was tape recorded, with my permission, on her end. The published interview appeared online on April 11.

I have no major complaint about the interview, just a tiny one. My side of the interview as published appears to be accurate. It sounds like what I said. However, her side of the interview is not exactly as I recall it. (I did not tape record the interview on my end.) Ms. Lambrecht and Salon have apparently edited her questions to make them crisper, clearer, more incisive. That is their right and it was what they should do. But I wish I had been accorded the same opportunity.

Since Salon did not offer me a chance to see the interview before it was published, I am using the bully pulpit of Blue Pencil to give my answers a manicure. I am not changing the gist of what I said or removing any gaffes. I am simply editing my answers to make them smoother and less discursive. I am adding some parenthetical comments to explain comments I made which may be opaque to non-type designers as well as some that are in reference to questions that were asked but do not appear in the Salon interview. I have also touched up a few of Ms. Lambrecht’s questions to make them clearer.

This is not an assault on Ms. Lambrecht or Salon, only as a tiny corrective. I fully appreciate her efforts. You can read the original interview at Salon.

Claire Lambrecht, Salon

Loud, complicated, sprawling: The New York City subway is a national landmark as much as it is a transit system. From its 1904 inception, the New York City subway has grown into the largest unified transportation system in the Western Hemisphere—one that includes more than 423 stations and 660 miles of track. But its breathtaking, and frequently overlooked, collection of signage — from colorful mosaics to colored circles—also offers fascinating insight into the popular conception of public transportation and the world in which we live.

Today, the modern subway is dominated by the Helvetica typeface: A clean, simple, unfussy font became a favorite of municipal planners and corporations in the postwar period. Prior to this redesign, however, the New York subway was a chaotic collection of signs and placards in various typefaces that more closely resembled the world of Dr. Seuss than the modern system we know today. In his new book, “Helvetica and the New York City Subway System,” New School adjunct professor Paul Shaw explains how the efforts of designers—including iconic graphic designers (and co-founders of the influential Unimark design firm) Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda—as well as politicians and the public helped engineer that change, and what that overhaul says about urban infrastructure and ourselves.

Salon spoke with Shaw over the phone to find out Helvetica’s revolutionary message, its effect on public transportation and what it tells us about New York City.

Where did Helvetica come from and why was it developed?

The typeface was created in a small town outside of Basel [Münchenstein] by one of the oldest typeface companies, Haas, which went back centuries [Haas’che Giesserei, established 1740]. They were not happy that one of the most popular typefaces among Swiss designers [in the 1950s] was a German typeface, Akzidenz Grotesk [from Berthold GmbH]. They wanted a typeface that was going to compete with it. They took Akzidenz Grotesk, studied it, and changed tiny aspects of it; which, when you add it up, created a new design. They didn’t have much imagination when it came to the name. They called it Neue Haas Grotesk, which means the “new sans serif from the Haas company.” It wasn’t exactly a barnburner in convincing people to get it—it didn’t really catch on among the Swiss designers. [Designers such as Armin Hofmann, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Max Huber and Karl Gerstner continued to use Akzidenz Grotesk while Emil Ruder and his students pledged their allegiance to Univers (Deberny & Peignot, 1957) designed by Adrian Frutiger.]

So how did a relatively unpopular typeface become the iconic “Helvetica” that we know today?

[Neue Haas Grotesk was not unpopular. It simply was not the sensation among Swiss designers that Haas expected.] The Haas company was partially owned by a German company [D. Stempel AG]. They said, “We like this new design; we want to sell it in Germany and elsewhere.’ Stempel was brilliant and realized that Neue Haas Grotesk was not a good name. They wanted to call it “Helvetia,” the Latin name for Switzerland, but the people at Haas balked at this on the grounds that you can’t name a typeface after a country; that somehow it was insulting to Switzerland. But someone at Stempel had the brains to think, “Let’s just add a ‘c.’” Helvetica is not only not a country, but it is easier to say. It was a brilliant solution.

How did Helvetica become so dominant?

It’s weird; it was almost an accident. Helvetica became dominant for basically two quirks of fate. It coincided with an interest in Swiss design worldwide in the 1960s. And it happened to get picked up by the right companies—and by the right technology. [Stempel owned German Linotype and thus was able to translate Helvetica to hot metal before its rival, Univers, was. And not only that, but being available in Linotype was better than being available in Monotype (as Univers eventually was) because Linotype dominated the newspaper and advertising markets. And Linotype had affiliated companies in the United States (Mergenthaler Linotype) and the United Kingdom (English Linotype) that could spread it widely.]

Why the 1960s?

The ’60s was the heyday of the idea that corporations needed an identity that could cut across all of their activities: their products, their materials, their services, their delivery systems, and their offices. It was part of the postwar international spread of corporations—especially American ones. They wanted to have a unified appearance.

What was it about “sans serif” typefaces (those without the tiny strokes at the end of strokes) that was so attractive then?

Designers were looking for typefaces that appeared objective or neutral; typefaces that didn’t suggest the past or have cultural meaning. There were a number of typefaces that fit the bill at the time, but Helvetica was the one that was available in the widest range of technologies. It was part of the Swiss zeitgeist. And so companies, as soon as it was available, began to make Helvetica their default face. People used to joke that you couldn’t tell one corporation from another because they all had Helvetica for their logos. [This was especially true by the early 1970s of American companies that were Unimark clients. But it was also true of German companies in the early 1980s as Erik Spiekermann has often pointed out.]

A lot of people are familiar with the New York City subway system of today. What did the subway look like 50 or 60 years ago? [This question was originally about what the subway system was like during the Mad Men era.]

There wasn’t a unified system of signs. You had ceiling signs, institutional signs, mosaic signs, column signs, and then, of course, you had billions of other signs: no smoking, no spitting and so on. All of this piled up. That’s what Don Draper [the protagonist of Mad Men] would have seen.

What happened in the postwar period that inspired [the] reform [of the New York City subway signage]?

People began to realize that if New York was going to be a world-class city—the heart of finance, art, publishing, and so on—something had to be done about this embarrassing transportation system. As we all know, it is incredibility effective, but it’s not very pleasant. The system is far better today than when I arrived in New York in the late ’70s; and yet there are days when I go down into it and I just start cringing. All of a sudden you realize that it does stink or that it is dirty—even if it’s far cleaner than it used to be. It’s an old system, one that’s been cobbled together system, which is really the one thing that separates it from every other system in the world.

Helvetica was developed in 1957 and was first available in New York in 1963 [as matrices from German Linotype which could only be used on American Linotype machines after being modified]. When did it make its way into the subway system?

It didn’t take over until decades after everybody thought it had. It didn’t become the official typeface until December 1989. Given that the first signage attempt was 1966, and the first manual was 1970, that’s a long time—but it crept in. It showed up before it officially “showed up.” You can tell that the MTA still doesn’t fully know what it’s doing. Just last December they renamed ”Jay Street–Borough Hall” as “Jay Street–MetroTech.” I finally went over to see what everything looked like. I was stunned. They used the wrong Helvetica. It’s Helvetica, but it’s not the right one. [It is the wrong weight. This is also true for the new signs at Chambers Street on the IRT line.] It’s the same mistake that they made in the ’80s. They got confused. I can’t believe that that has happened again for an entire new station redesign since they take great pride in maintaining Helvetica as the identity of the system.

How did Helvetica reflect the ideology of its day?

Sans serif as a dominant typeface really goes back to the ’20s: to the Bauhaus and other modernist designers who were contemporaries of, but not members of, the Bauhaus. Sans serif was seen by all of these designers as a style of type that didn’t have historical roots. It seemed to be free of the past; to be a type that was contemporary. To them, it was something that was free of past associations and therefore was perfect for what they thought was a new world happening.

A lot of these designers were left leaning if not all-out communist, and they thought there were going to be revolutions in other countries [following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia]. They saw designers as the new visual people, as “visual engineers”. They wanted type that seemed modern; that fit in with cars, skyscrapers and things like cinema and photography. And thus sans serifs became part of modernism. These designers also saw sans serifs as free from decoration. They wanted letters that were as simple as possible. Sans serifs were stripped-down—it was part of the machine aesthetic of the time. The letters aren’t obscured by unnecessary parts. Sans serifs have been associated with modernism ever since. Even today there’s still a sense that if you want to indicate that you are modern, you use a sans serif letter form. Tech companies love them. Architects love them.

How does that manifest itself in the New York subway system?

If this is the typeface of the modern world, especially modern corporations, then it’s also the typeface of modern transportation. It’s amazing how a subway station with a Helvetica sign looks newer than the same station with just mosaics. If you doctored photographs, you could quickly modernize the New York City subway system just by changing the signs.

What does the story of this typeface tell us about New York City?

What was most surprising about this whole thing was that I thought I was just writing a short article about “Is it Helvetica or is it Standard and why?” [meaning the signage that Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda of Unimark specified in 1966 and again in 1970] and instead I found myself writing about “What happened and why?” and “Why did things go downhill but somehow they’re still working?” “How have things changed and yet they haven’t changed?” And that’s what began to fascinate me: how what Vignelli and Noorda did in ’66 is still with us today, even though neither of them hasn’t been involved since 1970. What we have today is not what they did. We have a different typeface, we have different colors, we have a different system of signs [referring to the abandonment of Noorda’s concept of modularity]. We have all of these things that are different, and yet, when you look at it, there is an essence that is there that they established. It’s survived how many mayors? how many heads of the subway? how many budget crises? It’s even survived graffiti. If you’re asking what symbolizes New York, it’s not Helvetica. It’s how what Vignelli and Noorda did has survived. That’s very New York. It doesn’t matter that everything around them has fallen apart; their system is still here.

Note: When I have done interviews for Print and other publications they have been conducted by email rather than telephone. Thus, there has been no need to interpret what someone said. However, I have taken the opportunity to smooth out grammatically and syntactically responses from interviewees. The intent is to achieve an interview that, although not verbatim, is true to the intent of both parties and is as clear as possible to the average reader. This has been done with consent of the interviewee as I always send him/her an advance copy of the edited text for approval before being published or posted. However, interviewees are not allowed to change or delete things which they said have subsequently regretted, only to verify that my edits have not materially changed their answers.