In celebration of the 107th anniversary of New York City’s first official subway system, let’s take a look at seven facts about how its iconic signs came about from Paul Shaw’s Helvetica and the New York City Subway System:
1) The first “signs” in the New York City subway system were created by Heins & La Farge, the architects of the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT), when the IRT, the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT), and the Independent (IND) lines merged in 1904. They are the same mosaic tablets seen today in both serif and sans serif roman capitals. Although created in the same architect’s studio, none of the signs have a uniform lettering style.
2) George Salomon, frustrated by the labyrinth of distinctions among the IRT, BMT, and IND lines, suggested creating five color-coded lines identified by a letter and eleven branch lines a derivative letter/number combination. Only the color-coded route map was adopted by the Transit Authority, and Salomon’s subway map was published in 1958.
3) Many subway sign systems around the world experienced many issues with consistency of style, except for London. Calligrapher Edward Johnston created the Johnston Railway Sans font for Frank Pick, the publicity manager for London Transport in 1916. In the 1960s, the font Airport, first used in The Oceanic Building (now Terminal 3) at Heathrow Airport.
4) The font Helvetica, created in Switzerland, didn’t catch on so quickly in the United States until Mergenthaler Linotype in Brooklyn aligned its original German Linotype mats with American ones.
5) MIT was one of the earliest three places to incorporate Helvetica into award-winning designs and advertising.
6) Helvetica became the official typeface for the New York City subway system signage in December 1989. Forms of Helvetica Medium were used for the Metro-North, Long Island Railroad, and New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA).
7) Desktop publishing software helped prompt the complete switch from the font Standard to Helvetica. It was the only font available in the equipment and systems listed the 1989 MTA Sign Manual.