Review

Helvetica is a sans-serif font based on Standard (akzidenz grotesk), designed in 1957 by two Swiss font designers. By the late 1960s it had become the predominant font for use in logos, advertising, and signage - a position that it holds to this day. A strangely fascinating documentary movie about Helvetica was released in 2007. The Arial font used by many software applications is a minor variant of Helvetica.

In the early 1960s an Italian designer named Massimo Vignelli designed a signage system for the New York subway. His specifications called for the consistent use of Helvetica for all signs. Though parts of his design were implemented, the implementation was limited and poor. And in fact the subway system continued to produce signs mostly in Standard (often hand-lettered and flawed) rather than Helvetica until the early 1980s. It was not until the 1990s that a reasonably consistent signage system was implemented.

If you were to ask me why I find any of this interesting, I would not be able to tell you. It might be because the problem of signage has many of the same design challenges as the design of software. The issues go well beyond the choice of font - Vignelli’s original system simply chose Helvetica as the only font in order to reduce visual clutter and confusion. The bulk of his design dealt with issues of sign placement, color, word selection, etc. But the use of Helvetica certainly gave his design a distinctive ‘look and feel’.

Beyond that, font design is an interesting blend of art and science. The designers of the Helvetica font claimed that its design had better balance between positive and negative space than other similar fonts, reducing the appearance of gaps and clumps in running text.

So if you’re at all interested in this sort of thing, you will likely find this book to be a fascinating read. It is loaded with color photographs of New York subway system signs, some dating almost to the beginning of the system in the early 20th century. The layout and captioning is really well done, and the text is clear and concise.

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Metadata Info

  • Title: Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story
  • Author: Paul Shaw
  • Published: 2009
  • ISBN: 026201548X
  • Buy: Amazon search
  • Check out: Seattle library
  • Rating: 4.0 stars