Inspiration – The NYC Transit Authority Graphics Standard Manual

Dear Students,

Please click the link below to explore a great piece of both NYC and Graphic Design History.

Behold,  The NYC Transit Authority Graphics Standard Manual

Designed by Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda, Unimark, 1970

I would love to hear your reactions and feedback in the comments section below! Each student will leave a comment this week.

**after you “post” your comment I will have to manually approve it – you may not see it show up right away.

Some Questions to ponder and react to:

  1. What is your general feedback on the manual? Do you like it? Dislike it? Please Explain. Do you find it to be well designed, illustrated and clear in its application?

2. The manual was published in 1970. Does it still hold up for today’s world?

3. What is missing or should be added for today’s world of NYC Transit?

4. What additional questions are you left with?

30 thoughts on “Inspiration – The NYC Transit Authority Graphics Standard Manual”

  1. The Unimark NYCTA Graphics Standards Manual is a really interesting example of visually simple but highly effective design. It is fascinating to see how these deceptively plain arrangements were meticulously mapped out. The diagrams are probably the most interesting part of this manual, as they show how carefully every element was planned from inception to placement. It is a very clean and straightforward approach to signage, which is necessary for a fast paced area like the city subway. The manual itself is very well laid out as well. As a whole, it functions as a direct, visually pleasing testament to good graphic design.

    The design in the manual is very appealing. Despite being published in 1970, it remains modern enough in appearance to still be attractive and functional today. It has an air of modernity, while exhibiting a vintage charm, which seems very reflective of the eclectic nature of NYC.

    Despite its appeal, there is always room for innovation. Design is becoming more and more simplified as life’s pace continues to wax and attention spans wane. Perhaps the design could be further modernized by adopting some of the more minimalistic aspects of many signs and advertisements seen today.

    Overall, I am left wondering if NYC might someday see the implementation of newer designs for subway signs. Considering the cost such a plan might incur, it does not seem too likely. However, it would be interesting to see what sort of fresh approaches might be taken at some point, if any. I am also interested in further exploring the processes behind creating other graphic designs that are similarly unassuming, yet complex, but are perhaps taken for granted as they blend in with the general landscape of daily life.

    1. I agree very much that the design has an amazing modern aspect to it that replicates the intricate and precise aspects of the new york transit system, all though I can say there isn’t too much to improve on the quality of the design, outside of making them more accessible to read through adding more foreign language characters, mostly because of New York is very diverse with many cultures around. The font and design is already easy to grasp in my opinion –all though I have lived in the city my whole life so there could be some bias towards it.

  2. 1. I really liked the Unimark NYCTA Graphics Standards Manual, it is very clear and very organized, it is beautiful how the original graphics are displayed. I especially liked the page with graphic of people standing under the subway signs for size comparison. The entire page exhibited a familiarity of the sixties so charming that it was also achieved throughout the rest of the book. Anyone interested in New York City design and history would certainly benefit from this retelling.
    2. Definitely, I think that even though it was published in 1970, it still brings us a current idea for today’s world. I think that brings us this vintage idea but also modern at the same time. Which I particularly love a lot.
    3. I think nothing is missing, but maybe going through innovations is always good. Something that appeared to be cutting edge in 1970 may be completely out of date by 2020. Likewise, a design that inspires the world today, may be old news tomorrow. I think that, as we move into the future, the chances are that graphic design will continue to change.
    4.I wonder if maybe one day the traffic in NYC will go through a new organization, as it was done in 1970. Maybe with new ideals of letters, colors and formats, it would be really cool.

    1. Excellent! Thanks so much for this great response! I love the idea of re-telling yesterday’s story that is still in tact today, will everything go digital and electronic where static signage is in place?

  3. I believe overall the manual is really well made, I would’ve honestly got a copy of this book, it is really well made with well-detailed instructions on how the type and font should be as their standard especially coming with instructions on how to replicate it. My favorite aspect of the book is how detailed the instructions are on how to design their trademark arrow. I did enjoy how it shows on pages 59 through 60 how to properly space out the images and text when making a new sign. Though one thing I wish it featured more was going into more detail on how each letter, symbol, and punctuation is designed similar to the page on 55.

    I do think this holds up, as someone who is always riding the train throughout the city I can still see a lot of designing influence that the book has, even though it was published in 1970 it doesn’t feel that dated, the designing philosophies behind much of these feel like they are ahead of their time. It is already simplistic and easy to understand.

    I want to say I wish they could add more colors but at the same time it the colors they use is already good as it is and I can’t see any more improvements beyond that.

    Has there been more changes since the 1970s published book, is there a more updated book now? also what was on those pages that had a paper covering the page?

    1. Great!
      The manual has not be updated, it still stands as is! Im assuming that if it is updated it will be a whole new project and product. Thats a good question, I need to get my hands on an actual original!

      1. I actually was looking at this recently again and i realized this does encapsulate everything about new york and the New Yorker mindset, simple and efficient– nothing too daunting or stare at for too long, just quick and efficient. Everyone is always in a hurry so everyone wants to get the information fast

  4. I could look at that manual all day. I really love the attention to detail and the care taken to clearly define the look of the font’s spacing, leading etc. and I’m a fan of seeing the decision of the top left alignment for most of the square elements. I also loved the arrows. I tend to look at arrows and have a problem with the shapes the angles create. So, I appreciate the convergent lines in the circle. Oh, and each color getting its own page is better than a panel of swatches.

    I my opinion I think the manual holds up. It’s so clean and precise, and easy for the eyes to naturally move over each page. There is an easy separation of the paragraphs from the grids and examples.

    What is missing from this particular manual are the updates to the design in some of the newer stations like Fulton St Station in downtown Manhattan. Also the types of integration with other buildings like the Oculus. It would also have to be slightly updated for all of the digital additions, as they will into the future, and the added signage throughout some of those stations.

    As far as questions, I think the only one is, will they ever abandon the iconic simplicity when it seems some want to “futurize” them to fit into whatever the look is for that time. I doubt it. I see that clean classic NYC look never being abandoned for a more flashy, edgy one. That’s what Times Square is for.

    1. Wow, great response and great question here at the end! Will digital screen purely take over, I mean times square… do you remember times square before all the digital-ness… lol

  5. I like the manual overall I think is really simplistic in the right way. I can’t say I love it but I think everything they did was for reason, like making it so simple (kind of boring) the reason for this was to make it so easy that everyone could understand it.

    I think it does still hold up for todays world since the numbers and signs and everything is very understandable. I think the system overall could be more simple because as a foreign person myself, I still struggled with it a little bit.

    1. Yes yes, well said, design and aesthetic can intersect but in this case, it stayed very technical and concise for communication purposes. Yes, a language upgrade is so overdue, Im wondering if AR technology will play a role in that soon?

  6. 1. After looking through the manual I can say that I like it. I feel like this manual set the tone for a lot of manuals and instruction books to come. The manual is as clear as it gets and really simple and easy to follow, which is how all manuals should be.
    2. The thing I love about this manual is simplicity. When I first looked through the pages I immediately got a lego instruction book vibe. Or even an Ikea manual vibe. The fact that it resembles modern manuals today shows how this aesthetic held up through time. But it also doesn’t give a fully vintage vibe. I feel like the only thing that is noticeably old about it, is the old train lines that no longer exist.
    3. I wouldn’t say that the manual is really missing anything and it has stood the test of time. The only thing new I have seen in the train stations as of recent are these new vending machine kind of things but with masks and sanitizer, which is honestly a really good idea that could have been there way before COVID. People are just now starting to stay clean when this is something people should have been doing.

    1. Agreed 100% – great response! Now you know where Lego and Ikea got their inspiration!
      Yesss, many of those train lines are no longer in service, did you realize how many there were?

  7. I really like it, I think the simplicity that has, makes it easier to understand and learn the signs and symbols that have relatively easy. and I honestly would not change anything of it. we have to understand that the MTA is a system that millions of people use every day and including those that are not familiar with the city such as tourists or newcomers.

    1. Yes! I know the MTA has a TON of problems and issues… long standing one’s but at the end of the day, as you mentioned: “the MTA is a system that millions of people use every day” this in and of itself is a staggering thing to comprehend!

  8. This manual represents how far along the New York Metro System (now the MTA) has been around New York City. After looking at most of these images from the manual, I am astonished on how the pictures were used in discussions as a ballpoint planning for mass transit. I would not say I like it or dislike it, however I find it very intriguing on how far back the text of the signs and logo originated. As shown in page 67, the design and text used in the manual are still being used today. The designer of this deserves credit; although I do not believe his or her intentions was to have his viewers go nuts with enthusiasm for the art work, the illustrations, texts, and designs (particularly in page 67), was used to leave a lasting impression and it did because most of these designs are used today. What I do like is how the designer kept it simple when it came to the creations of the letters that represents the trains. The designer could have used a different text style, but he did not simply because his or her concern was how the strap-hangers can utilize the images for a necessity.

    Although this manual was published in 1970, it can hold up now, mainly because the colors and the text designs are still being used today. I personally believe the MTA are using this to signify the identities of the New York’s Metro system.

    As far as what is needed in today’s NYC transit; my honest opinion is nothing. Anything you can possibility think of to improve the visualization of the MTA’s designs when comes to creating a simplified normality of explanations that assist strap-hangers of the past and present while traveling is accommodated with digital and technical artwork.

    The only question I have, is this manual still being used today? If it is, I am not surprised. I would think that MTA use this manual as a blueprint for designs and architectures in case NYC would be creating new subway lines in the future.

    1. Great Response! Thank you!
      YES! The manual is still be used and applied, however, there are many many plans on the table about how this will all update and upgrade to integrate technologies in sync with our mobile devices 🙂

  9. I like the manual and its simplistic approach. It is hard to believe that before the manual, the subway system was such a chaotic place as now it seems like due to the manual, navigating the subway system can quickly become second nature for someone.

    Definitely. Especially when it came out in a time where bold lines and bright colors was the norm. The minimalism in the design was ahead of its time.

    Most design honestly. The team behind the MTA design does look like they read the manual but still take some liberty with certain fonts, designs or complementary ideas.

    I wonder if the MTA Team will once again redesign some of the designs in the future. And if so, that would be a costly matter with a result that seemed like it should’ve been the first done since the start.

  10. I like this manual. It is clear and easy to understand. It being made in 1970, still should be used today because of its simplicity.

  11. Its amazing to see the design that went into something that the majority of us see everyday. Personally whenever I use public transportation in the city I never really paid too much attention to the design, I always thought it was very simple and made easy to understand. Now looking through this I can see that even with just shear simplicity there’s much more work being put into the design than I could ever imagine. It gives me a whole new perspective of design in general for me because, although I understand that everything that is man made has to be designed in some way, there’s always more to even the simplest of things that we usually take for granted or never really even pay attention to.

    I’m actually surprised that this was made in the 70’s because its practically lived thus far in the MTA design in 2020. Sure there are things that have changed, but even down to the railing and poles, its all still there today. The colors used to indicate what train is going where, the numbers and letters all being uniform to one another. Its just a type of design that will never fade.

    1. Great response! I so agree, its easy to take something so simplified for granted or to “miss it” in the fast and furiousness of our everyday travels in transit. Im so curious how this will all get updated moving forward! Will be all digitized? Screens installed everywhere? Multiple languages? Exciting!

  12. 1.I like it, it is clear to understand (coming from a guy that is new to trains). 2.There is not much to improve on the design like what Brian Marquez had said.
    3.I also agree that the New York City Transit Manual should make them more accessible to foreigners especially in the more populated areas. As for signage or digital, me personally I would say signage because in my experience with the MTA the digital signs that I have seen tend to act up and no one would fix them for months.
    4.I am new to trains and their systems so I want to know how do people understand what is going on when the conductor is speaking on the obvious broken speaker, (just a joke) but really I can’t understand a thing they say.

    1. Well said! Great points here! broken signage and broken speakers dont help… if anything they make it harder, so perhaps keeping things less digital still has more value in the case of access for the masses.
      As far as broken speakers… haha, Im Deaf! I cant even tell you how many times I was on the wrong train that had no visuals to let me know of the route change…. 🙂

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