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Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story Hardcover – February 11, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


The book is a must read for sign nuts, design nuts, transit nuts, and all true lovers of New York.

(Julia Turner Slate)

A concise history of the New York subway, a visual archive of century's worth of underground signs (some of which are still in use), and an impressive study of the conflict between the purity of design and the messiness of the real world.

(The Wilson Quarterly)

[D]esign projects are rarely tidy; they're much likelier to be muddled, chaotic, and to be determined by flukes, gaffes and compromises as much as forethought. It's always refreshing to come across an unexpurgated account of the messy reality, and the American design historian Paul Shaw has produced a particularly thoughtful and engaging example in his new book, Helvetica and the New York City Subway System.

(Alice Rawsthorn The New York Times)

Mr. Shaw makes clear in one of the best-researched books on modern design to date, this most New York of places is today a realm dominated by a Swiss typeface specified by a pair of Italian designers. There isn't better testimony to the city as a melting pot or to the strange turns that any major design project inevitably takes.

(The Wall Street Journal)

For transit and type nerds alike, Paul's book is the Bible. It finally tells the true story of the New York subway sign system and shows how even big projects like it are shaped by people and their likes and dislikes; by accidents, prejudice, and half-knowledge. This is a history book, a type book, a design book, and a business book.

(Erik Spiekermann, creative director and managing partner, Edenspiekermann)

Paul Shaw's detailed narrative of the evolution of signage in the New York City subway system over the past half-century reveals how the many decisions underlying its appearance have been shaped as much by political, economic, and bureaucratic forces as by design considerations. His beautifully illustrated book brings a unique perspective to the subject, and is a welcome addition to the vast literature on New York City.

(Kenneth T. Jackson, Editor-in-Chief, The Encyclopedia of New York City; President Emeritus, The New-York Historical Society)

Paul Shaw's story of the New York subway sign system is an amazing piece of research. While Helvetica vs. Standard is the book's main focus, the most intriguing part of the story has to with the decisions and personalities involved. Shaw wonderfully captures the complexity of the undertaking, and shows how the persistence of a few people dedicated to expanding and improving the system over many years had a great impact.

(Tom Geismar, founding partner, Chermayeff & Geismar)

Paul Shaw's study of the signage in the New York subway system is one of the best pieces of design history I've ever read. Impeccably researched and gracefully written, it uses a seemingly prosaic subject as a starting point for a fascinating exploration of the way that graphic design developed as a discipline in the 20th century.

(Michael Bierut, partner, Pentagram)

About the Author

Paul Shaw, an award-winning graphic designer, typographer, and calligrapher in New York City, teaches at Parsons School of Design and the School of Visual Arts. The designer or codesigner of eighteen typefaces, he is the coauthor of Blackletter: Type and National Identity and the author of Helvetica and the New York City Subway System (MIT Press). He writes about letter design in the blog Blue Pencil.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 144 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press; 1 edition (February 11, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780262015486
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262015486
  • ASIN: 026201548X
  • Product Dimensions: 11 x 0.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #79,414 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Robin on March 2, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Non-creative folk might be perplexed to understand how a typeface could generate this many pages but here they are and it's a riveting read. The chapter titled 'Bringing order out of chaos' sets the scene with a brief description of the rather slapdash style of signage on the huge subway system developed over the decades. The next chapter looks at signage in Boston, England and Italy, mostly from the sixties onwards (so Harry Beck's map and Edward Johnston's typeface for the London Underground aren't included). The various transit systems had, by now, settled on a sans face loosely based on Standard Medium and in New York this eventually evolved into Helvetica over the years.

I always thought it odd that designers didn't take Standard Medium plus Bold or other sans (the Franklins, News Gothic, Venus et cetera) and just use them without modification. Letter and line spacing seems as important as the typeface in signage. The examples shown in the book have all been made into new faces. Maybe designers feel they must leave their individuality on these projects.

It wasn't until the mid-sixties that the MTA people decided to get to grips with a unified type, graphics and signage system. Unimark's Massimo Vinelli suggested ideas but amazingly, because of money problems, not too much came of the recommendations. It seems clear though that whatever outsiders suggested would have problems because of the way signs were produced. The Transit Authority had their own internal unit for making signs and the type stencils for some of these were actually cut by hand. Design manuals specifying all sorts of character and spacing refinements evaporated in reality.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on April 20, 2011
Format: Hardcover
The typeface Helvetica is surely the only one that has ever had a movie documentary made about it (and it is a good movie!). Some argue that Helvetica is overused, but if this is true, it is only because it has filled an important typographical niche. It is used especially in public places, especially on civic signs, and many people think that it has always been the typeface for signs in the subways of New York. That's not at all possible; Helvetica is a modern typeface created in 1957. That it is now strongly associated with New York subways, however, just shows how it did take over official and unofficial competitors, but its triumph wasn't easy and it wasn't a sure thing. How Helvetica triumphed is not a simple story; it is full of false leads and missed opportunities. In _Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story_ (MIT Press), design historian and lettering artist Paul Shaw has done quite a bit of detective work about the New York subway's history, as well as touching on transportation graphics in general. The book is large in format and quite beautiful; within its 132 pages are 286 photographs of signs, subway stations, type specimens, maps, and advertisements. Anyone who enjoys thinking about graphics, lettering, or transportation history ought to love this book.

The current single network subway was made from a merger of three separate systems in 1940, and each had its own sign system, but no system was internally consistent. The first signs were mosaics on the station walls to show the names of the stations or directions. The labor-intensive tilings were supplemented by enameled and glazed signs on metal, as well as hand-painted and paper signs, with no unity of color, size, or type, and even the mosaic signs were sometimes painted over.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Dezcom on April 27, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Most often, books on design, present a lovely completed vision of the final product with all their flaws Photoshopped away like a centerfold image. Those of us who have tilted at windmills know the real story behind working with the quagmire of complex institutions.
Paul Shaw has forsaken the "healing tool" in favor of a look at the design process, blemishes and all. He shows us battles lost as well as won. The New York Subway system did not begin life as a well orchestrated plan that was delivered as composed with a single downbeat. There were numerous conflagrations among the many involved factions from planners, designers, local governments, businesses, and unions. What we see today on a subway platform in NYC is a semi-pealed onion revealing layers of history.
Paul makes a fine story of the toils and shows images from all facets of the century-long project still in progress. He jokingly adds "maybe" after True Story in the subtitle but we all know such a story could not be invented. The book is a combination lesson in history, sociology, commerce, and 100 year turf-wars, the stuff real design projects are made of.
My only small quibble with the book is that the layout can be a bit confusing to follow sometimes. This may be because there are so many intriguing illustrations and footnotes that you forget where you were reading. This is hardly a problem though, rereading is a pleasant task and you find things you never knew were there--kind of like repeated trips on the New York subway.

By all means, take it for a ride or two.
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