food for selfish thought

food for selfish thought:

biased observations that you may not agree with

high standards


$50 for a book with some scans of old subway signs. That's exactly what you get when you order a copy of the NYCTA Graphics Standards Manual, reprinted by the guys in charge at Standards Manual publishing.

Sound like a scam? Well the six thousand people who supported the project on Kickstarter would probably disagree, especially after pledging more than $800,000 in support of the book, which had a goal of only $100,000 in crowdsourced funding.

I, however, wouldn't be so quick to dismiss anyone hesitant about this book. It isn't for everyone, let's get that clear. Upon flipping through, you'll be greeted by Helvetica—or so the untrained eye thinks—renderings of either single letters and numbers or examples of the signage employed at certain subway stops, complete with precise tracking specifications for every character. This is a standards manual after all. 


Was I disappointed in this book? Yes, but for good reason. You see, the type employed by Massimo Vignelli for this entire design of the metro system is not, in fact, Helvetica in any form. Rather, it is called Standard—a classic New York move of making the tiniest adjustments to a pre-existing typeface (Helvetica) in order to claim it as their own—how non-conformist of them. Check out the terminators on letters such as e and C. Rather than ending perfectly horizontal—a hallmark of Helvetica—they have been brought down ever so slightly to an angle. Frustrating to any Helvetica-lover, certainly. 

Joking aside, I adore this book. And not just because I spend $50 on it. Unless you are redesigning a pathfinding system, it probably serves little practical use, but I cannot help the feeling of giddiness whenever I crack it open to pour over the pages that Massimo Vignelli was responsible for crafting.


It is very much a time machine, brought into modern day best when you visit New York after flipping through it. I will never mistake a stop's signage for Helvetica, not after arriving at Canal Street and seeing those angled terminators on the C. But more importantly, I will never take for granted each and every one of those signs along the subway lines. If one "book" about graphic design of signage can bestow upon someone a new appreciation of this entire metro system overnight, imagine how much good the guys at Standards Manual can do with a couple more. And if imagining it isn't doing the trick for you, go get some for yourself

Wade Burton