Brain Pickings

The Almost True Story of NYC’s Subway Helvetica


We have a soft spot for subway design and NYC urban typography. Not to mention Helvetica. So we’re all over Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story — an ambitious and fascinating survey of the distinctive lettering in NYC’s underground from MIT Press, telling the story of how typographic order triumphed over chaos.

The story begins with the ornate original mosaics, dating as far back as 1904, and their tangled mess of serifs, sans-serifs and various decorative elements that amounted to visual cacophony of the most overwhelming kind. So much so that in the 1960s, the city transit authority hired a design firm to overhaul the signage with more consistent typography, but the effort didn’t garner the public acclaim it had aimed for. In fact, iconic New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger famously wrote that the city would be better off if the signs weren’t there at all. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Helvetica became ubiquitous, but what happened in those interim years has been the subject of much speculation and urban mythology.

Some images via MyFonts

In Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story, graphic designer and calligrapher Paul Shaw unravels this fascinating typographic changeover in an absorbing narrative augmented with over 250 photographs, sketches, type samples and original documents. As much a design treat as it is an exercise in understanding the fickleness of urbanism, the book is an esoteric gem of the shiniest kind.

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