Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story by Paul Shaw

Left Image:
Atlantic Avenue (2/3)

Right Image:
President Street (2/5)

There is a common belief, reinforced by Gary Hustwit’s documentary film Helvetica, that Helvetica is the signage typeface
of the New York City subway system. But it is not true—or rather,
it is only somewhat true.

Helvetica is the official typeface of the MTA today, but it was not the typeface specified by Unimark International when they created the signage system at the end of the 1960s. Why was Helvetica not chosen originally? what was chosen in its place? why is Helvetica now used? when did the changeover occur? Helvetica and the New York City Subway System answers these questions and then goes beyond them to look at how the subway’s signage system has evolved over the past forty years. The resulting story is more than a tale of a typeface. It is a look at the forces that have molded a signage system.

Paul Shaw places the New York City subway system signage in the context of 1960s transportation sign systems worldwide, the collapse of the American passenger railroad system that same decade, and the decline and rebirth of New York City from the Lindsay administration to today. He also offers a fresh and revealing look at the history of Helvetica from an American perspective.

Helvetica and the New York City Subway System was originally written as an essay for AIGA Voice, an online magazine. It was posted in November 2008 and subsequently translated into Portuguese for the Brazilian blog logobr and into Chinese for the upcoming AIGA Speaks: Thoughts on Design 2009. Shaw lectured on the subject in February 2009 to a standing-room only crowd at the Type Directors Club in New York and in July 2009 at TypeCon 2009 in Atlanta.

Shaw’s account of Helvetica’s infiltration of the New York City subway system is based on numerous field trips within the system itself; interviews with Massimo Vignelli, Bob Noorda, Michael Hertz, Tom Geismar and many others; and extensive research including material in the MTA Archives, the New York Transit Museum and several personal collections. Helvetica and the New York City Subway System contains previously unpublished documents as well as more than 200 photographs, most of them original or never seen before. The AIGA Voice text has been corrected, revised and amended to take into account new information. It is supplemented by a chronology of the New York City subway system, comprehensive notes and a bibliography. An introduction has been written by Prof. Clifton Hood, author of 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York (1993).

The book, designed by Paul Shaw and Abby Goldstein is published by Blue Pencil Editions in a limited edition of 500 copies. Printing is by Capital Offset of Concord, New Hampshire and binding by Acme Bookbinding of Charlestown, Massachusetts.

UPDATE: For those who were unable to get a copy of Helvetica and the New York City Subway System you now have a second chance. The book has been republished by The MIT Press and is available at the very affordable price of $39.95. Read More.