Posted in Publication, Typeface

Helvetica and the New York City Subway System | Paul Shaw



Helvetica and the New York City Subway System
The True (Maybe) Story
Paul Shaw

Type aficionados are well aware of this book / study but I felt it was worthy of further TT exposure.

Buy the book here

More Information here

Thanks to Paul Shaw and Display for some exclusive images and information


Further research / info

Triborough’s New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual Flickr set

Thanks to Paul Soulellis for the use of his images for this feature —Re-creations of the cover and a few pages from Unimark’s 1970 masterpiece








I actually bought this book when I went to New York in September! We passed by an old fashioned book shop and it immediately caught my eye. It’s a great read; very interesting to see the previous and after designs of the subway. The lady who owned the store said “you can tell a lot about a person from what books they buy, and this reflects very well on you.” heh!

Peter Burch

This looks like a really interesting book… But the font is Standard not Helvetica

Steve Blakeborough

But the typeface used above is not Helvetica, it is Akzidenz Grotesk :)


Well spotted Dragos : )

– The typeface used was called ‘Standard’ – similar to AG Old Face (Akzidenz) – The book describes the process of the change to Helvetica.

‘The True (Maybe) Story’

“Legend has it that Helvetica came in and vanquished the competition. Paul Shaw shows that it didn’t happen that way—that, in fact, for various reasons (expense, the limitations of the transit authority sign shop), the typeface overhaul of the 1960s began not with Helvetica but with its forebear, Standard (aka Akzidenz Grotesk). It wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that Helvetica became ubiquitous. Shaw describes the slow typographic changeover (supplementing his text with more than 250 images—photographs, sketches, type samples, and documents). He places this 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.”

david watson

I understand the context now. But anyway, I don’t think of Helvetica to ever be superior to Akzidenz Grotesk and I don’t understand why it was used for the NY subway id (I should buy this book to learn the entire story behind the switch).

Here in Bucharest, RO, Metrorex the subway company, started to change the signage system in 2011 – from all kinds of old typefaces reminiscent of the communist past of our country – to DIN and this is really a good change. DIN is by far a better option for public signage systems instead of Helvetica/Akzidenz…


We’ve been doing some reviewing of street typography and way finding at The FDP Group ( and one thing that has come out of our study is the atmosphere certain fonts create within the environment they are used.
I personally just love the gritty ‘street’ images of the subway shots. They will become icons of our times.
Day to commuters simply get used to seeing what’s around them, and I think that’s testament to the perfect font usage.
Big up type!!! The FDP Group.

James Russell

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