I Just Got Here. I’m Not Even From Manhattan, I’m From Queens. . .

October 7, 2009

Why Helvetica and not, well, anything else.

November 20, 2008

Having seen this on several blogs, I almost didn’t post it. After reading it, however, I managed to relate it to my own experiences in graphic design, which is what this blog is all about.

In 2001, when I moved to New York to attend Pratt, I had only a minimal interest in graphic design. I was a computer graphics major, though my passions were somewhere between computer animation and fine art. My roommate was a graphic design major, however, and it was conversations with him that first brought the New York City Subway signage system to my attention.

Like most college freshmen, we had the perfect blend of bravado and naiveté to believe we could do a better job of designing the signage system, a task so complex that it took the MTA, with the help of several notable designers, several decades to complete. I remember sitting on the G Train, looking at the signs and saying, “Man, these things are so ugly.” We assumed the signage was of little thought to the MTA, and was probably done in-house by a lone accountant who had a bit of extra time on his hands. We even proposed writing the MTA and offering them our services, because “something had to be done.” I was particularly troubled by the usage of the typeface Helvetica (what I then called Arial because I didn’t know the difference between the two and a font because, at that point, I had never even heard the word typeface). What would we have done? Replace Helvetica with Times New Roman? Or better yet, Impact? (Actually, that might be an interesting experiment. Let me write that on a post-it.)

Seven years down the line, and after a woefully necessary education in typography and the history of graphic design, it’s safe to say I no longer have such misguided (pun intended) ambitions. I am now able to appreciate the perceived candor of Helvetica, as well as the design climate and technological advances (or limitations depending on how you view it) that led to its usage as the MTA’s standard typeface. Conversely, I can truly appreciate the beauty of the mosaic tile and hand-drawn signage of the subway’s darker, seedier past. While my wilder side may gravitate towards the hand-drawn signage, I have a secret love affair with Helvetica. In fact, I used to carry Lars Muller’s Helvetica: Homage To A Typeface with me at all times, akin to the way young English majors carry Catcher In The Rye around in their back pockets.

Paul Shaw’s, The (Mostly) True Story of Helvetica and the New York City Subway, is an in-depth look at the history of subway signage from the very beginning up until now. It answers some of the questions you’ve always wanted to know about why the MTA looks the way it does. It even points out things you wouldn’t have thought to ask. Did you know the stripe at the top of subway signs were originally the result of a sign maker’s mistake, rather than a design element?

Don’t take it from me though. Read the article here on AIGA.org.