The Beautiful Impact of New York City Transit Signs

Growing up in and around NYC, the Subways and trains become part of a rite of passage. Taking the subway by yourself becomes a milestone, a badge of honor, in one’s pre-adolescent development.

The signs and symbols which guide and direct you took on greater subliminal meaning. They became icons of the culture you were developing in your young mind, tied to your maturity, signposts to your freedom. In some cases the transit symbols became labels for the genuineness, the claim of being from or part of NYC. In the 80’s there was a great punk-rock band called “Token Entry.” The icon for their band branding was the token entry symbol from the subway. Everybody who was “hip” wore that shirt. It interesting to note that approximately 20 years post-Token Entry the MTA sells distinctive t-shirts which show the numerical or alphabetical symbol of the train line of your preference.

But, looking deeper, there was a “hidden driver” in place to seed and spark these symbol adoptions to occur. In the case of the New York City Transit Authority symbols this hidden driver were two designers: Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda.

“In 1967 the New York City Transit Authority hired Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda of the design firm Unimark International to design a signage and wayfinding system that would solve the problem underground…The work they delivered, the 1970 New York City Transit Authority Graphic Standards Manual, succeeded in that goal and, perhaps unintentionally, the Standards Manual became one of the world’s classic examples of modern design.”

An original version of this manual was uncovered recently and there is a Kickstarter to have it scanned and printed in a limited edition. The two current designers who discovered this rare book initially launched a website about their unique find with photographs of the book’s pages. The site was overwhelmed with interest, which led them to create the printing project via Kickstarter.

The “wave” of impact from these simple designs has lasted decades. It has undulated, but each time the wave peaks it appears higher than before. I’m curious to see how this book will impact new generations. In the meantime I’ve seen handfuls of utilizations, including the new team of designers hired to redesign NYC parking signs, and the “way finding” sign team, that follow the guidance of this book rather then take a new direction.

I loved my Token Entry t-shirt, or maybe I loved the well designed symbol that had a look and feel to last centuries.