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. The signs were designed and placed with no overall plan, creating a graphic chaos and missing chances for clearly directing pedestrian traffic. The Transit Authority realized that the chaos needed control, and in 1966 consulted a new design firm, Unimark International; one of its leaders, Bob Noorda, had just designed the graphics for the subway in Milan. Unimark analyzed the patterns of pedestrian traffic in many stations; one of the illustrations shows Noorda's decision tree for Times Square station, with branches for each decision point as the pedestrian eventually got to the proper uptown or downtown or cross-town train. Of course the signs would be in Helvetica, which was unmatched for readability and, well, modernity. The modernists from Unimark were thanked for all their suggestions, and were bid farewell, and the in-house sign-makers went to work, acting on some of Unimark's suggestions but misinterpreting or ignoring others, and generally botching things up. The _Daily News_ dubbed it "Flubway," and Shaw writes, "Merely installing a few new signs was not the same as implementing a coordinated sign system." Stung, the Transit Authority got Unimark back into the act to produce and implement comprehensive signage. Unimark was understandably reluctant to use the in-house sign shop, but the Transit Authority would allow no alternatives. Typefaces had to be chosen from the ones already in the shop, and they did not include Helvetica. Unimark had to settle for a similar sans serif face, Standard Medium, the American name for Akzidenz Grotesk, a very popular font which was based on nineteenth century models; similarly, Standard Medium was the basis for Helvetica. Of course Shaw includes sample sheets of both fonts, and while it might take a font fan to tell the two apart when the letters are actually in use, side-by-side comparison makes the difference visually plain; one of the giveaways is that the ends of Helvetica's letters, as in the capital S, are cut horizontally. For graphic designers, the font has many advantages, especially that it can be set tightly while remaining fully legible. There are different reasons that Standard faded and Helvetica took over (it was declared the official typeface only in 1989), most having to do with Helvetica's increasing adoption by connecting lines, its expanding availability in graphics packages, and its becoming the only typeface that was available for each of the different signage systems.
Shaw's book shows signage and direction as human efforts, and gives a lush portfolio of successes, challenges, and failures along the way to the current system. Helvetica has proved to be unifying for the subways, and the unity has helped with signage themes, which has meant that everyone understands the subway system a little bit better. Helvetica isn't universal; in fact, the title of Shaw's book as it shows up on the front cover mentions Helvetica but isn't in Helvetica. It is wittily set back to Standard, a difference I would not have appreciated before looking over this handsome volume of graphic history.