From the Archives no. 17A—Even More on Helvetica in the United States

Raleigh D’Adamo, one of the winners of the 1964 Transit Authority map competition, showed me some old New York City subway maps recently. Although I had seen most of them in person before, there were two I had never looked at in detail: the 1967 map and its 1969 revision. These are the maps that immediately preceded the well-known Vignelli map of 1972. What caught my eye was the typography. Both maps used a mix of Standard, Helvetica and Trade Gothic. The boroughs are set in Standard (Akzidenz Grotesk), all of the stations are in Helvetica, and the rivers, parks, islands and service key information is in Trade Gothic. The heading for the service key, however, is in Helvetica.

I suspect this mishmash was the result of a combination of copying the past on the one hand and trying to be au courant on the other. That is, the boroughs were a hold-over from the 1958 map as was the erratic application of Trade Gothic while the Helvetica was something new occasioned by the redesign of the subway routes. The latter included the introduction of color-coding for the first time, following D’Adamo’s 1964 suggestion.

Vignelli’s use of Helvetica on the 1972 has always puzzled me. Even though he was a big proponent of the typeface he and Bob Noorda had recommended Standard for the subway signage. For someone who believed in design consistency within an organization he should then have used Standard for the map. When I asked him why he used Helvetica instead he was unable to recall any rationale. It is possible that he speced Helvetica out of habit, given its status as Unimark’s “house face” at the time, but he may also have done so because it was already being used on the NYCTA maps. Of course Vignelli dropped Standard and Trade Gothic. Ironically, the latter returned in 1974 when revisions to the Vignelli map were made without his input. See a range of New York City subway maps online.