Visual Organization + Communication Design
Typography is everywhere. The New York City subway is a perfect example of a communication design challenge because it has both a legacy of many signage systems and typefaces layered over time and space and there is a need to quickly communicate crucial information to millions of people in one of the oldest and most extensive public transportation systems in the world.
Below is an excerpt from wonderful article by Paul Shaw from AIGA about typography in the NYC subway that is worth reading.
There is a commonly held belief that Helvetica is the signage typeface of the New York City subway system, a belief reinforced by Helvetica, Gary Hustwit’s popular 2007 documentary about the typeface. 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 it created a new signage system at the end of the 1960s. Why was Helvetica not chosen originally? What was chosen in its place? Why is Helvetica used now, and when did the changeover occur? To answer those questions this essay explores several important histories: of the New York City subway system, transportation signage in the 1960s, Unimark International and, of course, Helvetica. These four strands are woven together, over nine pages, to tell a story that ultimately transcends the simple issue of Helvetica and the subway.
As any New Yorker—or visitor to the city—knows, the subway system is a labyrinth. This is because it is an amalgamation of three separate systems, two of which incorporated earlier urban railway lines. The current New York subway system was formed in 1940 when the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit), the BMT (Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit) and the IND (Independent) lines were merged. The IRT lines date to 1904; the BMT lines to 1908 (when it was the BRT, or Brooklyn Rapid Transit); and the IND to 1932. Portions of the IRT and BMT lines originated as elevated train lines, some dating back to 1885.