“Who Made That? (Subway Signage)”—Who Knows?

“Who Made That? (Subway Signage)” by Pagan Kennedy, in The New York Times Magazine for 9 December 2012 (p. 30), discusses the signage of the New York City subway system that Unimark developed between 1966 and 1970. I was contacted for information for the short article, specifically about Helvetica as the iconic typeface of the system. I tried to explain the complicated history of the system’s use of Standard (Akzidenz Grotesk) and Helvetica; and to distinguish the contributions of both Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda in creating the sign system. I am quoted in the article, but much to my surprise the emphasis is not on typefaces, but on something I did not discuss: the colored disks used in the signage. “They [the signs] used minimal text, arrows only when necessary and color-coded discs to indicate different train lines,” Kennedy writes. “The discs were Noorda’s masterstroke.”

The only problem with this last statement is that I am not sure that Noorda was the one who came up with the idea of using color-coded discs. So I turned to Peter Lloyd, who has been working for several years now on a book about the New York City subway system maps, for information on what he knew about the use of colored discs by the New York City Transit Authority before the hiring of Unimark. Here is what he has to say:

The Transit Authority (TA) used a route marker (a solid disk of the same color that the route has in the subway map, with a unique letter or number inside it) in a prototype map submitted for testing in April 1966, a month before Unimark was hired. It originated in the 1964 map contest, when Raleigh D’Adamo introduced color-coded routes, at the terminals of which he drew a rectangular block in the same color as the route, with the identifying number or letter inside. Stan Goldstein changed D’Adamo’s rectangular blocks to rectangular frames, and the TA’s own mapmaker converted the rectangles to circles. Unimark inherited the color-coding and the route markers: their achievement was to create from those elements an effective visual language.

Thus, there is no clear-cut answer to who deserves credit for introducing the color-coded discs into the system, just as there is no clear-cut answer to when the system began using Helvetica as a typeface. History, unlike journalism, is often murky and definitive answers are often elusive.

New Subway Routes. Transitional New York City Transit Authority subway map (1967)

This limited map of the New York City subway system was issued sometime in late 1967 to explain the massive changes in subway routes occasioned by the opening of the Chrystie tunnel that linked the IND and BMT lines. It is the first published map to include color-coded discs as route markers. There is no information on who designed it, yet it anticipates the celebrated 1972 subway map designed by Massimo Vignelli. The typefaces used are: Univers 67 for the borough names; Permanent for the route stops; Trade Gothic Condensed for the service information; and Alternate Gothic no. 3 for the route discs.

Updated 17 December 2012. Thanks to Justin Bur (Montreal) who challenged my original identification of Helvetica for the station names.

Permanent (Karlgeorg Hoefer, Ludwig & Mayer, 1962)