Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Transit officials haven’t given his first metro project the respect it deserved.
Thanks to a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign in 2014, Bob Noorda’s most successful U.S. project, the New York City Transit Authority Graphic Standards Manual that he and Massimo Vignelli completed in 1970, has reached a new generation of designers and transit enthusiasts. But before Noorda helped fixed New York’s mess of a subway system, he designed Milan’s from scratch.
The Amsterdam-born designer moved to Milan in 1954 as a 27-year-old. There, he developed dozens of unforgettable visual identities for mostly Italian clients including tire makers, gas companies, magazines, and grocery stores. Just before he formed Unimark International with Vignelli in 1965, Noorda was asked by architect Franco Albini to help design a wayfinding system for the subway he was building.
Noorda came up with the idea of a color-coordinated band that stretches along the walls inside each station. For Line 1 riders, a red band identifies the station name every 16 feet while a second band provides exit and transfer directions as well as safety signs. The color bands blend in with architectural elements like railings and entrances. Noorda also created a custom “grotesque” font which had an intermediate weight, enlarged counters, and shortened descenders and ascenders in order to be more legible. For their efforts, Noorda, Albini and project engineer Franca Helg were honored with the 1964 Golden Compass Award, Italy’s highest industrial design honor. Line 1 opened that same year.
The same principles were used for the green-colored Line 2, which opened five years later. But, as expressed by multiple Italian designers in Bob Noorda Design (Moleskine, $39), Milan has mostly failed to keep Noorda’s vision in place as it expands and Line 1 ages. Both Giovanni Anceschi and Mario Piazza write fondly in the book of Noorda’s never-used double-M logo with curves inspired by Albini’s station railings. It was scrapped due to politics within the transit agency. Anceschi also mentions Line 3’s “claustrophobic” design (it opened in 1990) and recalls then-mayor Letizia Moratti’s unfulfilled promise in December 2009 to let Noorda oversee station renovations. Noorda died the following month.
Noorda himself had the idea to create a book that looked back on his career, but Bob Noorda Design was ultimately published five years after his death. Before his passing, Noorda’s displeasure with the changes happening to Milan’s metro was well known. Anceschi’s essay quotes him:
“Stupid is the word. I can’t describe it any other way. Stupid because they have no notion of the idea behind certain choices. I had used matte paint for the red panels, now they’re using gloss that’s so dazzling you almost can’t read the sign. They’re also using a different typeface from the original, far less interesting than the one I had designed. They could have involved me, I don’t know why they didn’t. Once upon a time company executives, and many politicians, had good taste, but not anymore.”
While those who run Milan’s metro may fail to see Noorda’s vision, the simplicity and attention to design seen through Line 1 led to more transit projects in New York and São Paulo. Noorda’s platforms in Brazil’s biggest city are similar to Line 1 in its efforts to display station information in the clearest way possible with color and typography while creating a uniform visual identity. Unlike in Milan, it was accomplished without the benefit of each station being designed by the same architect. In New York, Noorda and Vignelli created a unified and clear visual language for what had previously been three separately owned and competing subway systems with an impossible mishmash of signage throughout.
The NYCTA Standards Manual’s new life as a precious commercial product speaks to how just how impressive it is when a complex set of information is presented as something that looks so simple. As Noorda’s experience in Milan proves, it’s often just as hard to convince a client to truly believe in it.