Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
It took about 100 drawings before Herbert Matter came up with his famous design for New Haven Railroad.
How many sketches does it take to make one of the greatest transit logos ever? For Herbert Matter, the answer was about 100.
The Swiss-born photographer, designer, and Yale professor came up with New Haven Railroad’s iconic ”NH” logo in 1955 after trying out dozens of other ideas, as seen in the video above.
After losing money on its freight and rail service for years, New Haven Railroad appointed the controversial Patrick B. McGinnis as its new president in 1954. As retold by Jessica Helfand for Design Observer, McGinnis’s wife, Lucille, convinced him to pursue new branding to help restore shareholders’ and passengers’ faith in the rail company.
In a period where passenger rail service in America was often seen as antiquated compared to highways and air travel, Matter’s visual identity for New Haven Railroad still appeared as fresh as anything by GM or TWA.
Matter’s stacked ”NH” logo was finalized in a red and black scheme and unveiled one year into McGinnis’s reign. Soon after, it appeared on new locomotives, lighters, pocket watches, and playing cards.
Its immediate and lasting impact is even more impressive considering the company’s problems. McGinnis’s efforts to modernize New Haven Railroad were overshadowed by financial woes and chicanery that forced him to step down after 22 months on the job. He eventually served time in federal prison after being indicted for graft. New Haven Railroad, meanwhile, merged into Penn Central in 1968 and its assets were acquired though bankruptcy in 1980.
Matter’s logo, however, still lives on. His ”NH” appears on the occasional red and black locomotive of a Metro-North train, and at New Haven’s Union Station, tiles with his logo set in blue and white can be seen on the way up to each passenger rail platform. Outside the station, artfully rearranged logos appear along a wall that separates the rail yard from Union Avenue.
New Haven Railroad’s McGinnis era came and went in a flash. But it lasted just long enough to make something New Havenites and train enthusiasts still hold on to 60 years later.