The Secret Design History Of The MTA

Transit nerds have a new must-read book.


The MTA has some of the most iconic branding of any transportation system around the world, thanks to Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda’s 1970s standards system. Yet that’s a relatively recent chapter in its history, and there’s more than a century’s worth of graphic design that often flies under the radar. A new tome, New York City Transportation Authority: Objects, documents the lesser-known visual ephemera of the city’s many subway, bus, and regional rail systems.


“Save Time Buy Extra Tokens Now” Sticker. [Photo: Brian Kelley]
It all started with an obsession. In 2014, photographer-turned-amateur-design-historian Brian Kelley began saving used Metrocards and taking snapshots of all of the different graphics and promotions that appeared on the tickets over the years.

After a while, he realized that the MTA didn’t have a proper digital archive and decided to make his own. Kelley began documenting maps, vintage ticket stubs, employee uniform patches, public service announcement flyers, and more from the MTA. Fellow collectors and former MTA employees would send him items to photograph–like uniform patches, badges, buttons, and tokens–and he would scour eBay to find even more material. “I’ve been called a hoarder before,” Kelley told The Hundreds–a blog from the streetwear company–last year.

Eventually he amassed over 2,000 objects related to the MTA’s visual communications, design, and branding. He began posting his images on Tumblr and Instagram. And now, 400 of his photos are immortalized in book form thanks to Standards Manual, the publishers behind the resurgence of vintage graphic design style guides (including the MTA’s own 1970 manual).

1972 NYCTA Subway Guide designed by Massimo Vignelli. [Photo: Brian Kelley]
The MTA has a rich design history, some of it good and some of it bad. Often it’s the “good” that is celebrated, like Vignelli and Noorda’s famous 1970s graphic standards manual for the MTA, which centered on wayfinding signage and maps that brought order to the system. Kelley’s book takes a broader look at the MTA’s “other” design, which isn’t necessarily as meticulous as Vignelli’s and Noorda’s work, but still just as fascinating.

Just as Metrocards’ graphics changed over time, so did the design of subway tokens, service maps, and employee handbooks. Kelley’s book is photo-driven, with little context to the objects aside from brief captions. But seeing everything together reveals the secret history of an already storied transportation system that millions of people recognize, but might not really know.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.