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.”
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.