The original mosaics (dating from as early as 1904), displaying a variety of serif and sans serif letters and decorative elements, were supplemented by signs in terracotta and cut stone.
Over the years, enamel signs identifying stations and warning riders not to spit, smoke, or cross the tracks were added to the mix.
Efforts to untangle this visual mess began in the mid-1960s, when the city transit authority hired the design firm Unimark International to create a clear and consistent sign system.
We can see the results today in the white-on-black signs throughout the subway system, displaying the station names, directions, and instructions in crisp Helvetica.
Paul Shaw’s Helvetica And The New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story tells the story of how typographic order triumphed over chaos.
The process didn’t go smoothly or quickly. At one point, New York Times architecture writer Paul Goldberger declared that the signs were so confusing one almost wished that they weren’t three at all.
Legend has it that Helvetica came in an vanquished the competition, which isn’t true. It wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that Helvetica became ubiquitous.
Paul Shaw places the signage evolution in the context of the history of the New York City subway system, of 1960s transportation signage, of Unimark International, and of Helvetica itself.
Design & communication strategist Erik Spiekermann writes that:
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.
In The Road To Renewal: Private Investment in U.S. Transportation Infrastructure, R. Richard Geddes surveys the current state of U.S. ground transportation and finds that, like the roads themselves, transportation policy is in desperate need of repair.
A shift toward increased use of public-private partnerships (PPPs) — contractual agreements that allow private participation in the design, construction, operation and deliver of transportation facilities — could significantly improve the quality of U.S. roadways.
Mary Peters, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation under President George W. Bush, writes that Geddes work “provides the best, most comprehensive resources to date about how we can attract private investment to help meet U.S. infrastructure needs. At this critical time, when traditional public sources of revenue are insufficient and unsustainable, this book is a must-read for those of us who seek to provide funding for America’s transportation system now and into the future.”
Los Angeles In The 1930s: The WPA Guide To The City Of Angels returns to print an invaluable document of Depression-era Los Angeles.
It illuminates a pivotal moment in L.A.’s history, when writers like Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West and F. Scott Fitzgerald were creating the images and associations (and the mystique) for which the City of Angels is still known.
Many books in one, Los Angeles in the 1930s is both a genial guide and an addictively readable history, revisting the Spanish colonial period, the Mexican period, the brief California Republic, and finally American sovereignty.
The Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration not only provided jobs and income to writers during The Great Depression, it created for America an astounding series of detailed and richly evocative guides, recounting the stories and histories of the 48 states (plus Alaska Territory and Puerto Rico) as well as many U.S. major cities.
This work is also a compact coffee table book of dazzling monochrome photography. Those haunting visions suggest the city we know today and illuminate the booms and busts that marked Los Angeles’ past and continue to shape its future.
Note: A striking image of iconic Union Station adorns the cover.