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New York City’s most chaotic design system is its most successful

The branding of NYC’s subway system is a free-for-all, with different styles and ideas all mashed together over the decades. So why does it work?

New York City’s most chaotic design system is its most successful

Like most New Yorkers, I take the subway every day. I know exactly where to stand on the platform to exit at the correct staircase, so as not to fritter away even a second of time on my daily commute. I rush to, on, and off the train. And I studiously observe the unspoken subway riders’ code: Don’t Look Anywhere But Down.

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One morning on my commute, however, I looked up and I noticed something beautiful. Breathtaking, really. It was the letter “A” and it was stunning, flanked by tulips in the Atlantic Terminal mosaic sign in Brooklyn. When I got off at Wall Street, I took notice of the “W.” It was all business compared to my flowery friend back in Brooklyn.

And with that began an 11-month odyssey in search of all 26 letters in the mosaics of NYC’s subway stations. The quest took me to the outermost edges of the outer boroughs. Finding a “Z” required a schlep to Queens (Woodhaven Boulevard/Slattery Plaza). I had to take an early morning detour to Bushwick Aberdeen for the perfect ‘”B.”

I grew up in London taking the tube and have been living in NYC for more than two decades working as a graphic designer and typographer. The London transport system I grew up riding was well-branded from the get-go with a custom font (Johnston Sans) designed in 1913 and the roundel (the famous wheel and axle logo) introduced in 1933. The design language has remained broadly the same over the last century.

New York City’s public transport branding story is a little bit more, complex, to be polite. Around the turn of the century, the NYC subway was not a system but a patchwork of private lines, each with its own look and feel. When they were joined into one institution in 1940, the MTA undertook an effort to make the loose mix of styles consistent, something it’s been trying to do—in fits and starts and with varying degrees of success—ever since. My professional opinion as a designer? It’s basically a free-for-all. But you still know you’re in the NYC subway. Why is that?

It’s the mosaics.

The subway’s visual system (and I use the word “system” loosely) is in many ways the tile work itself, which dates back to the early 1900s. Luckily for the New York subway, it’s virtually impossible to destroy these masterful ceramics, created in different eras in different styles under different architects, which explains their heterogeneity. The earliest tile signage was ornate: glazed terracotta bas-reliefs with picturesque motifs that brought to life the history of the station’s location. South Ferry’s got sailing ships and Astor Place station is adorned with the beavers that made pelt-peddler John Jacob Astor a wealthy man.

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The second wave of tilework that began in 1908 streamlined the signage with Machine Age precision. The flowery reliefs were too high-maintenance to survive bottom-line driven practicalities. The curlicues and critters of the previous era gave way to flattened name tablets that were faster and cheaper to produce, not to mention easier to clean. We still see the classic all-caps rectangular station names with colorful borders on most stations today. These handsome letterforms remain modern, but because they are tile, they are organic enough to allow for some idiosyncrasy; it’s impossible to make every letter perfectly the same.

Interestingly, mosaics, like a lot of things in this city, have come full circle. When the system fell into decay in the 1980s, the MTA undertook a massive overhaul that included bringing art underground. The Arts & Design program was inspired by the original mission of the subway’s founding fathers who believed every single design element should uplift the traveler’s experience. The MTA leaned into the original idea of mosaics to do exactly that, commissioning stunning new installations over the past three decades. Chuck Close’s Subway Portraits on the new Q line on the Upper East Side will stop even the most harried commuters in their tracks. Same goes for the recently refurbished 23rd Street F/M station where tile portraits of William Wegman’s famed Weimaraners pose in the kind of clothing commuters would wear.

Unfortunately, some of the stations over the years ended up with mosaic artwork but not the mosaic signage of the days of yore. Instead, when you stand at the platform edge, you might spot on the trackside wall a black number “86” or “34” on a white wall indicating the station. Understandably, the labor-intensive art form was mostly reserved for making artworks but not for fashioning station names. As a typographer who believes creativity can also flourish in everyday numbers and letters, it makes me sad. The stark little numbers look like an afterthought.

The subway’s whole mashup of baroque and prosaic, ornate and austere, serif and sans serif leaves me conflicted. The OCD part of me is agitated by it while the ADD part of me loves it. Uniformity has its appeal and but does the irregular. And the truth is, I would never have voyaged to the ends of the earth (or the L line) to seek out signage if all the letters were consistent. It was the system’s unruliness itself that inspired my passion project.

The drive to answer the unanswered and know the unknown is what propels us humans forward. The irony is that if what we find on those journeys is messy, we feel compelled to straighten things out. Cartographers make maps. Mathematicians formulate equations. Us designers, well, we create visual identity systems. All these frameworks help give us some predictability in a vastly unpredictable world.

Good thing for all of us there will always be some beguiling mayhem that sparks us to break out of our routines. Without it, we’d always take the same way to work every day and never look up.

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Graham Clifford is an independent design director and chairman emeritus of the Type Directors Club. In his 20-plus year career, he has worked on brands from A to Z (AT&T to Orbitz). He moved from London to NYC 25 years ago and is a NYC history buff.

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