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Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story (MIT Press) Hardcover – February 11, 2011
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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. He is the coauthor of Blackletter: Type and National Identity and writes about letter design in the blog Blue Pencil.
Paul Shaw, an award-winning graphic designer, typographer,and calligrapher in New York City, teaches at Parsons School of Design and theSchool of Visual Arts. He is the coauthor of Blackletter: Type andNational Identity and writes about letter design in the blog BluePencil.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
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.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This is great book, especially for anyone with a design background! I would highly recommend!Published 4 months ago by Courtney Newhouse
This is a fascinating story that combines two of my passions: New York City and typography. I highly recommend this book if you want to learn how all of the New York City subway... Read morePublished 19 months ago by David Klein
Most books about the subway, deal with the history of the system and how it was built. This book focuses on something most of us neglect when we are down in the subway, its signs... Read morePublished on March 5, 2014 by Corey D. Rosenberg
As a 32 year nycta veteran, a private memoribilia collector and life long historian this book left me more in the dark about the topic then bfore I read it. Read morePublished on January 28, 2014 by Richard M. Adelman
This was a great gift. It is well-presented, with gorgeous photos. Any font snob or Subway aficionado should have this on their bookshelf.Published on December 11, 2013 by Photolady80
I bought this for a young man who is autistic. He has a great love of the New York City subway system and was just thrilled to have this book!Published on November 28, 2013 by B. Friedman
For what it is it is decent. It is a highly technical collaboration and not a book for the typical New York City Transit rail fan unless you're heavily into Transit architecture... Read morePublished on May 16, 2013 by John Landers