Home View from Underground A glimpse inside Transit’s Graphics Standards Manual

A glimpse inside Transit’s Graphics Standards Manual

by Benjamin Kabak
Massimo Vignelli's signage decision tree highlights how signs should be placed only at decision points and no sooner or later.

Massimo Vignelli’s signage decision tree highlights how signs should be placed only at decision points and no sooner or later.

New York City Transit’s Graphics Standards Manual, designed by Massimo Vignelli and his team at Unimark International in 1970, stands the test of time as the paragon of sign design in the city’s subways. Over the years, the rout-indicator bullet colors have been unified, and the double letters and confusing QJ and QB designations have been simplified. But absent a switch in letter coloring from black-on-white to white-on-black, Vignelli’s signs have withstood the test of time as the key wayfinding elements underground.

The system doesn’t always work properly. I’ve been critical of the information presented on signs discussing divergent routes. It takes some base level of knowledge, for instance, to understand the way the B and D run after crossing the Manhattan Bridge and what service patterns are like once the B stops running but the D doesn’t stop at DeKalb Ave. Additionally, some of the MTA’s later additions not included in Vignelli’s manual are flat-out ungainly. The signs that shorten platform to “plat” are among the worst around.

Still, Vigenlli’s philosophy survives the test of time because of its simplicity. Whereas his subway map oversimplified New York City and the subway schematic, his signs present information riders need when they need it, not before and not after. To understand how this works, point your favorite web browser over to TheStandardManual.com. A few enterprising designers — all associated with Pentagram Designs — have published high-res photos of each page of The Standards Manual, and it gives the design-obsessed among us a chance to delve into the history of signage. Before Vignelli, it was a mess; after, it’s a unified system of generally clear signage.

My favorite page, almost obvious in its simplicity, concerns the placement of signs within a station. It’s something we take for granted now, but Vignelli’s instructions set the tone. “This diagram,” reads Page 2 of the manual, “explains the sequence of information to the rider. It is a branching system that will lead him to his destination as directly as possible. The basic concept of this branching system is that the subway rider should be given only information at the point of decision. Never before. Never after.”

This sign peeking out from behind a light fixture was not a particularly useful one. It has since been moved. (Photo via Second Ave. Sagas on Instagram)

With that in mind, take a look around your favorite station complex. The sign philosophy is best illustrated by a stroll around Times Square, and I’ve noticed that some signs are superfluous or beyond the decision point. That’s likely a result of years of modifications to the stations and signs that wind up in awkward or useless locations. (A sign hung behind a light at Atlantic Ave. comes to mind. It has been re-hung since I snapped a photo of it eight months ago.)

The rest of the Graphics Standards Manual is worth a perusal as well. Vignelli and Unimark discuss the modular design, the proper amount of information to put on a sign, and the process for deviating from standards. Over the decades, many elements of Transit’s public presentation have changed: The subway map looks radically different today than it did in 1972; we use Metrocards and not tokens; subway cars all feature LED route bullets without the distinctive colors on the front. And yet the signs remain. Idiosyncrasies and all, they must be doing something right.

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Jason K. May 15, 2013 - 9:48 am

The Fulton Street station could stand to use some revision based on these guidelines. I can see no less than a dozen signs at once in some areas — total information overload. Hopefully this is just a temporary side effect of construction.

Jerrold May 15, 2013 - 10:08 am

At least, compared with the old days, information has been added to the signs that is of use to people making shorter trips.
For instance, at one time the sign for the E train at Seventh Ave./53rd St. said QUEENS E.

John Doe May 15, 2013 - 10:38 am

interesting article on Queensway, I tried to email you Ben, not sure if it went thru


Ant6n May 15, 2013 - 11:31 am

So if you miss one sign you get lost? And you never know whether you missed a sign, because signs should only be at decision points?

Benjamin Kabak May 15, 2013 - 11:33 am

How do you “miss” a sign though if you have to choose between two different paths?

Ant6n May 15, 2013 - 12:41 pm

Many New York subway stations are weird spaghetti monsters – I wouldn’t know what a ‘decision point’ is as a newcomer; and if it’s crowded it’s easy to miss signs, and corridors etc. And the picture you put up is an easy example of a sign that can easily be missed.

I think I prefer a standard that says that from nearly every point in the station, I can see signs telling me where to go.

Chris C May 15, 2013 - 5:34 pm

“I wouldn’t know what a ‘decision point’ is as a newcomer”

You are not supposed to reach a decision point and think ‘ohhh a decision point I must make a decision’. You are just supposed to look at the signs and decide which way to go to get where you want. The only time you need a sign is when a decision has to be made which way to go. Any more signs would actually cause more confusion.

“And the picture you put up is an easy example of a sign that can easily be missed”

The article clearly states that the location of the 2/3 sign was corrected and it was moved.

“I think I prefer a standard that says that from nearly every point in the station, I can see signs”

The purpose of the manual and the example tree is so there is a standard for signs to point the way. And the first photo is NOT a sign in itself but shows how when going through a station the signs develop to be more specific. But again too many signs causes confusion.

Ant6n May 15, 2013 - 10:30 pm

By not knowing what a decision point is I mean that is often not clear that you are at an intersection when underground, and that there are options to go in one or another direction. In a place that I don’t know, I need signs anywhere where I could pop up and decide I’m not sure anymore which direction I’m going – which is the whole station. It’s really bad to be in a place you don’t know, following some signs, which suddenly disappear, and then you don’t know anymore whether the schlepp of a tunnel you’re trodding along is still the right way.

It’s naive to think that signs cannot be missed. Even if you say that the sign in the above posted image was fixed at some point, it still got people getting lost in a place where redundancy in signage is seen as “confusing”.

I’m sorry, but New York is bad at signage. It’s easy to get lost, people constantly do. People tell each other about secret ways to get around Times Square or Penn Station – that shouldn’t exist. The mta map is confusing and cluttered. Names are screwed up (there exist multiple stations with the same name). And the service deviation descriptions due to construction use their own language, you have to learn it to understand what’s going on.

I think New Yorkers like their counter-intuitive symbolic/map/signage grammar, because they don’t like tourists, and enjoy when they get lost.

Ant6n May 15, 2013 - 10:35 pm

I see a sign telling me where to go. I follow that sign. I step beyond that sign, it’s not visible anymore, because it’s behind me. At that point, I want to see another sign, telling me “It’s alright, don’t worry, you’re not lost, you are still going the right way. Follow me, and you will find another sign until you reach where you need to be.”

John Paul N. May 16, 2013 - 5:55 am

Maybe what you want is for the signs (at decision points) to display distances? But that won’t help for me. I can’t tell by sight how far my house is to the nearest intersection (and I’m in the middle of the street).

Gabrielle May 16, 2013 - 3:09 pm

Perhaps you need your hand held at all times. When I was a newcomer to NYC, I appreciated the simplicity and ease-of-use that the subway signage had.

If you’re transferring to the L from the 1/2/3 at 14th street and the sign points down that hallway, why do you need signs every 3 inches to tell you that “yes, the L is still this way, it hasn’t jumped up and moved elsewhere”? I’m glad that Vignelli chose not to cater to easily-confused types.

BrooklynBus May 16, 2013 - 7:00 pm

You don’t need signs every three inches but if there is no new decision point for a long distance, the sign needs distance markers like 200′ or 400′ feet ahead or else people will start wondering if they made a mistake if they see no new information for a long distance. You also run the risk if one sign is removed or falls off, all the signs following become meaningless if signs are only placed at decision points. This is a bigger problem for road signs than for transit signs.

Alon Levy May 15, 2013 - 2:37 pm

It’s Times Square. A lot of its bifurcations are not decision points, but instead parallel paths leading to the same trains.

BrooklynBus May 16, 2013 - 9:13 am

You forgot to mention the ridiculousness of Vignelli insisting that arrows always go on the left side of the word or number when logically some belong on the right side. That was always intensely confusing and was finally changed many years later after many complaints. Under Vignelli you had signs like /\ Exit 4 ,
when they should have said. /\ Exit Those did not stand the test of time.

Ryan 6 Train May 17, 2013 - 12:55 pm

In speaking of extraneous or ill-placed signage a particular countdown clock in Grand Central has erked me for months. When walking down the ramp from the 4/5/6 to the 7 there is a countdown clock you read that tells of the arrival times for the train you just got off of. When you leave the 7 and are going board a 4/5/6 the sign faces the wrong direction and you would have to stop and look backwards down the ramp to see the times. Try doing that at rush-hour.

Maybe this will include 7 arrival times at some point? Otherwise it makes no friggin sense.


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