A legendary document brought to the masses.

Late one night last August, three Pentagram designers rummaging through the design firm's basement archives found the Rosetta Stone of New York subway graphics: the original Standards Manual, designed by Bob Noorda and Massimo Vignelli in the late 1960s.

The 180-page binder, the key to the system's iconic design choices, outlines a meticulous vision of signage intended not merely to look good -- though it does -- but to simplify navigation of the subterranean labyrinth. In its attention to passenger behavior, the manual goes above and beyond what most of us would term graphic design.

"The subway rider should be given only information at the point of decision," proclaimed the designers. "Never before. Never after."

"Diagram of the Information Tree" for the Times Square station, from page 2 of the NYCTA Standards Manual.

The existence of the book is well-known; its contents legendary. But apart from a few off-kilter snapshots posted to Flickr in 2006, images of the document itself were scarce. So when Niko Skourtis, Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth found the 1970 manual in a locker beneath a pile of dirty clothes in the Pentagram basement, they did the world a favor and posted its pages, PDF by PDF, on a new website.

"None of us had ever seen anything like that before," Skourtis says. "In its full glory."

Nearly fifty years ago, the New York City Transit Authority hired Bob Noorda's Unimark International to develop a uniform system of signage for the subway system. Since the subway comprised what had been three separate systems -- the IND, the IRT, and the BMT -- the stations and trains were cluttered with conflicting, confusing instructions.

Noorda and Vignelli made it look easy. They gave the system its sans-serif typeface (the sign-makers would not or could not yet print Helvetica, so the designers settled initially for Standard Medium), its color-coded disks,and its pared-down, modular signage. A wonder of precision, the Standards Manual even addresses the heights of conductors with and without hats. 

"It's pretty much a design bible as far as standards manuals go," Skourtis says.

Some things have changed in the last fifty years. Standard Medium has been (rather famously) replaced by Helvetica. In an effort to discourage graffiti, signs now feature white lettering on black, as opposed to Unimark's prescribed black-on-white. The surest sign of the book's age? A mock-up sign warning readers: "Clerk not required to accept bills over 5 dollars."

But the graphic language of the subway is nearly the same, and a flip through the book relays its remarkable aesthetic coherence. (If anything, the current system of signage is a slight under-design of the Unimark model. Noorda wanted every station peppered with "Directories," alphabetical listings of stations showing, in symbols, exactly how to get from here to there.)

The original document offers some remarkably crisp images of the subway's vernacular, like this diagram of how to construct the system's most commonly used symbol:

 
There are, the Manual stresses, six and only six ways to use these arrows.
 
 
The designers even included some examples of ways not to use these symbols (at the bottom of the page).
 
 
One imagines that the designers would also have forbade the now-common U-turn arrow, if they had foreseen its use.
 
But the Standard Manual's most famous contribution is surely the vibrant, colored disks for trains, today the stuff of t-shirts and posters:
 
 
And unlike Vignelli's diagrammatic 1972 subway map, which has achieved immortality in the design world since it was banished in 1979, these symbols have garnered the affection of strap-hangers and typographers alike.
 

The reaction to the published manual, Skourtis said, has been huge. "We've gotten a gigantic response -- the site crashed two or three times in the first week," he said. "We got a ton of emails. People were so happy to see the thing in its entirety."

All images from the NYCTA Standards Manual.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A man wearing a suit and tie holds an American flag at a naturalization ceremony.
    Life

    The New Geography of American Immigration

    The foreign-born population has declined in U.S. states that voted Democratic in 2016, and increased in states and metros that voted for Trump.

  2. Uber Eats worker
    Life

    The Millennial Urban Lifestyle Is About to Get More Expensive

    As WeWork crashes and Uber bleeds cash, the consumer-tech gold rush may be coming to an end.

  3. Transportation

    A Micromobility Experiment in Pittsburgh Aims to Get People Out of Their Cars

    The Pittsburgh Micromobility Collective will create all-in-one mobility hubs near transit stops, to compete with Uber and Lyft and help commuters go car-free.

  4. Sanders walking in front of a large apartment building with men in suits
    Perspective

    This Is How to Make Democratic Candidates' Housing Plans a Reality

    After years of investment in creating affordable housing, the U.S. still doesn’t have adequate supply. Presidential candidates’ plans must address reasons why.

  5. a photo of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick in 2016.
    Transportation

    What Uber Did

    In his new book on the “Battle for Uber,” Mike Isaac chronicles the ruthless rise of the ride-hailing company and its founding CEO, Travis Kalanick.

×