Gushing over Helvetica and the New York City Subway System

Alexander Cameron has just written an exuberantly positive review of Helvetica and the New York City Subway System for I Love Typography. He especially focuses on the design of the book which both Abby and I appreciate. Some of his comments:

The format size of Helvetica+—285mm (w) x 245mm (h)—immediately suggests that this is primarily a book to study, and not necessarily read in transit. Both the text content (including substantial notes and captions) and that of the photography, illustration and type specimens deserve so much more than a mere flick through.

This choice of format also allows for an effective typographic arrangement between the central narrative text, numerous (and learned) notes, captions and images. Furthermore the generous use of white space is a welcome contrast to the monochromatic content of the photographs.

However, Cameron is critical of the choice of text typeface. He mistakenly says that it is AG Oldface when in fact it is Monotype Grotesque. Abby and I initially wanted to use Akzidenz Grotesk, the logical choice given the book’s subject matter, but we found that it set poorly. In searching for an alternative I examined books designed by the leading Swiss designers of the 1950s and 1960s and discovered that a great many of them used Monotype Grotesque as a text face to accompany Akzidenz Grotesk. Although I had always liked the way in which Herbert Spencer and other British designers in the 1960s had used the face, this discovery gave me a good historical reason to use it for Helvetica and the New York City Subway System. The one thing I did not want to do was use Helvetica in the book since I have always disliked it.

This fact has no bearing on Cameron’s opinion that the text typography has an “annoying ‘polka-dot’ or ‘peppering’ effect caused by its optical and technical deficiencies”. But that is an opinion not shared by Abby or myself or, apparently, by the majority of readers of Helvetica and the New York City Subway System.

In his review Cameron also praises our use of color imagery to break up the monotony of the monochrome images. That was not deliberate. All of the images in Helvetica and the New York City Subway System are reproduced as is, whether that be in black and white or in full color. Other than cropping and sizing images, we did not tinker with their original color.

Finally, I want to make it clear that the design of the book was a joint effort between myself and Abby Goldstein. He role was invaluable and should be given due credit.