“Graphic Standards Manual” for the New York City Transit Authority

Check out the decades-old guide for the signage of the NYC subways:

The New York City subway was a confusing mess in the 1960s, with inconsistent, haphazard signage that made navigating the system a nightmare for commuters. In 1967, the New York City Transit Authority decided to do something about it. They hired Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda of the design firm Unimark International to design an improved signage and wayfinding system. The designers spent four years studying the labyrinth of the subway, analyzing the habits of commuters, and devising the iconic visual identity of the NYC subway that is still in use today, documented in the 1970 New York City Transit Authority Graphic Standards Manual

Reed emphasized that the manual is meant to be read as much as seen. He pointed to a passage on letter spacing that demonstrates how Vignelli and Noorda expected serious attention to every detail: “A modular system has been devised, which offers consistent spacing for letters and words for the three sizes of type. This unit system must be scrupulously adhered to at all times as this will preclude any inconsistency, regardless of where or when any given sign is being manufactured.”…

“These guys literally spent months analyzing the traffic and behaviors of subway riders. Legend has it that Noorda spent weeks underground stalking riders to study their movements.”

As for the design itself, he added, “there are moments of beauty in the most minute details. For example, the four-degree reduction on the diagonal bar of the arrow, which allows for visual accuracy, rather than mechanical calculation.”

A classic behind-the-scenes project that gets little attention though the signs are seen by millions. By now, the signage is iconic just like the lettering and signage of the London Underground and the Paris Metro. It’s hard to imagine the signs looking any other way yet because of New York’s position in the world, another system might have become equally iconic.

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