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Helvetica and the New York City Subway System


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The book is a must read for sign nuts, design nuts, transit nuts, and all true lovers of New York. -- Julia Turner Slate For transit and type nerds alike, Paul's book is the Bible. It finally tells the true story of the New York subway sign system and shows how even big projects like it are shaped by people and their likes and dislikes; by accidents, prejudice, and half-knowledge. This is a history book, a type book, a design book, and a business book. -- Erik Spiekermann, creative director and managing partner, Edenspiekermann Paul Shaw's detailed narrative of the evolution of signage in the New York City subway system over the past half-century reveals how the many decisions underlying its appearance have been shaped as much by political, economic, and bureaucratic forces as by design considerations. His beautifully illustrated book brings a unique perspective to the subject, and is a welcome addition to the vast literature on New York City. -- Kenneth T. Jackson, Editor-in-Chief, The Encyclopedia of New York City; President Emeritus, The New-York Historical Society Paul Shaw's story of the New York subway sign system is an amazing piece of research. While Helvetica vs. Standard is the book's main focus, the most intriguing part of the story has to with the decisions and personalities involved. Shaw wonderfully captures the complexity of the undertaking, and shows how the persistence of a few people dedicated to expanding and improving the system over many years had a great impact. -- Tom Geismar, founding partner, Chermayeff & Geismar Paul Shaw's study of the signage in the New York subway system is one of the best pieces of design history I've ever read. Impeccably researched and gracefully written, it uses a seemingly prosaic subject as a starting point for a fascinating exploration of the way that graphic design developed as a discipline in the 20th century. -- Michael Bierut, partner, Pentagram

About the Author

Paul Shaw, an award-winning graphic designer, typographer, and calligrapher in New York City, teaches at Parsons School of Design and the School of Visual Arts. The designer or codesigner of eighteen typefaces, he is the coauthor of Blackletter- Type and National Identity and the author of Helvetica and the New York City Subway System (MIT Press). He writes about letter design in the blog Blue Pencil.


A concise history of the New York subway, a visual archive of century's worth of underground signs (some of which are still in use), and an impressive study of the conflict between the purity of design and the messiness of the real world.

-The Wilson Quarterly

[D]esign projects are rarely tidy; they're much likelier to be muddled, chaotic, and to be determined by flukes, gaffes and compromises as much as forethought. It's always refreshing to come across an unexpurgated account of the messy reality, and the American design historian Paul Shaw has produced a particularly thoughtful and engaging example in his new book, Helvetica and the New York City Subway System.

-Alice Rawsthorn, The New York Times

Mr. Shaw makes clear in one of the best-researched books on modern design to date, this most New York of places is today a realm dominated by a Swiss typeface specified by a pair of Italian designers. There isn't better testimony to the city as a melting pot or to the strange turns that any major design project inevitably takes.

-The Wall Street Journal

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