In a city as large and as dense as New York, it’s hard to underplay the role that the subway system has played in residents’ collective psyche. Conversely, it’s easy to assume that the subway has always looked the way it does now – the subway map a grid of colour-coded lines and the iconic signs above the entrance to each station popping up at street level.
But this was thanks to the work of designers Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda, then at Unimark International design firm, who had the daunting job of overhauling the transit system’s visual communications and branding.
Until then, the complexity of New York City’s subway system was a fait accompli. Its signage was inconsistent and chaotic, leaving newcomers confused and disoriented. “You didn’t know where to look, you didn’t know where to go,” says Pentagram partner Michael Bierut in this video. Residents simply accepted it, dismissing its design flaws as a symptom of their haphazard urban environment. As Bierut puts it, the prevailing attitude was “New York is a complicated place – figure it out”.
That was until 1966, when the city’s Metropolitain Transit Authority hired Unimark to design a new system for signage. Vignelli and Noorda, both masters of corporate identity and signage, spent four years unraveling the twisted system of routes and designing a streamlined identity and methodology for its signs. It was a huge undertaking. The end product was the NYC Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual, which contained every detail of their vision for each location marker and direction in a system that revolutionised commuting for New Yorkers.
Flash forward to 2012 and a rare copy of the manual is found in "a locker beneath old gym clothes" in the basement of design firm Pentagram. Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth, two designers working under the guidance of Beirut, along with typographer Niko Skourtis, created an online archive of scans from the manual. But the images on screen somehow didn’t do it justice.
So they decided it had to live on as a book. Reed and Smyth ran a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to produce a limited run of books that replicate the work at its original scale. The resulting hardcover book, due for release in 2015, will be large and substantial, featuring an introduction by Beirut and an essay by New York magazine staff writer Christopher Bonanos. Page reproductions are completely faithful, down to details such as having all the prints only on the right hand page to mimic the ring binder format of the original.
Vignelli and Noorda’s design for the subway system helped craft New York’s image and highlighted the possibility of creating a city that isn’t centered on roads and cars. Furthermore, with a few variations the system is still in use, showing remarkable longevity.
The publication of the NYC Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual as a book affirms it as more than just a historical artifact.
“It has this simple kindergarten-level clarity to it that, combined with the enormous sophistication of the analysis that underlies it, creates this document that for my money has never been duplicated since,” says Bierut.
But the elegance of its solution has uplifted it even further, says Beirut. “It is simply a beautiful piece of modern design.” It isn’t just a manual for subway signs; it’s a manual for successful design.