Bob Noorda, who redesigned the New York City subway system with Massimo Vignelli, died earlier this month. Noorda and Vignelli founded Unimark International in 1965 (Noorda was based in Milan, Vignelli in Chicago), the firm you can blame, or credit, with making Helvetica one of the most widely used typefaces on earth. “Don’t bore the public with mysterious designs,” Noorda said, and so we have his 1966 New York subway signage, as simple as it gets, and still in use today.
An obituary by Steve Heller in The New York Times points out that Noorda’s original plan was for black letters on white signs, but the MTA thought they’d get dirty too quickly (probably a good move). Noorda spent days underground, mapping foot traffic to figure out exactly where to put the signs, and how many–or how few–were really needed. “Their system was a mess,” he said. “Sometimes pieces of paper taped to the wall were the only indication for the station.” Of course, those pieces of paper still exist, crowding out the standard signage these days, but at least they’re printed in Helvetica.
Noorda’s sketch of pedestrian traffic in the Times Square station.)