The Swiss Underground In NYC

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Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth at Pentagram recently obtained exclusive permission from the NYC Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) to reissue the 1967 loose-leaf Subway System Standards Manual as a hardcover book, the one that ’twas born of the collaboration of Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda. There was one condition: the reissue will only be available during the length of a 30-day Kickstarter campaign, which launched today.

I usually don’t promote Kickstarters (because I’d be inundated). But The Standards Manual reissue, printed using high quality scans from the original, is one of the important treasures of graphic design history. Reed and Smyth say that every page will be included, printed only on the right hand page of the book—consistent with the single-sided page ring-binder format of the original. What a gem it will be. I asked Reed and Smyth to tell us more about the project and its genesis.

The Standards Manual

The Manual re-issue will be a 372 page hardcover book printed at full size: 14.25 W x 13.5″ H (362 x 343 mm).

How did you obtain permission to reproduce this?

When we found the manual in 2012 and made, we knew right away this would make a great book. We were also completely giddy over it and wanted to show everyone. I remember holding private viewing sessions at Pentagram after work.

At that time, Jesse and I were working on the WalkNYC wayfinding program with the DOT in 2012. Last year, MTA started talking about updating their current “Neighborhood Maps” posted in subway stations. Around the same time, DOT released the WalkNYC program, and the DOT and MTA struck a partnership to use the WalkNYC base maps to update the neighborhood maps in all the stations.

So in 2013 we began working with MTA closely to make alterations to the WalkNYC base maps for the subways (released last month). Through Pentagram’s relationship with MTA we casually floated the idea, and were eventually able to negotiate an agreement after 6 months.

This rare copy of the manual

This rare copy of the manual was discovered in 2012 in the basement of Pentagram Design in NYC. It still bears the stamp of its owner.

Is this reprint a deliberate celebration of Vignelli now that he’s passed?

We didn’t deliberately time this to release after Vignelli’s passing, but this had always been intended as a celebration of Vignelli and Noorda’s work. We’ll be including a dedication page in the book. I really wish Massimo would’ve been around to see it.

Why is it so important to the design community and to the outside world?

I think for graphic designers, the Manual is kind of like the Rosetta Stone. Swiss style modernist design, and in particular Vignelli’s work, has been fetishized in recent years, especially by my generation of designers (I’m the first to admit guilt here). There’s no denying, it’s an intoxicating book of pure graphic design porn.

To everyone else though, I suspect a book about signs doesn’t sound very interesting. But they have become part of the fabric of the city—seen and read by millions of riders every day. I think when many people picture NYC, these signs pop into their head. So we felt a tremendous responsibility to publish not only an important piece of design history, but also an important part of this city’s history.

The Standards Manual

Page 59. Different sign combinations were detailed to show how a strictly minimal system could adapt to the complex labyrinth that is the New York City Subway.

How does this manual compare to other CI standards books?

As any connoisseur of CI standards books will know, the main difference between between a manual of this era and a manual produced today is a matter of analog/digital. The Standards Manual was built for analogue production methods. The book was literally meant to be used for reproduction—paint chips are perforated to match colors, artwork is sized correctly for photo-reproduction. Today, that is all prescribed digitally and any CI manuals exist only as a PDF.

Compared to CI manuals made in the same era, the biggest difference we’ve found with this manual is the amount of theory and logical analysis that was included. Many pages are dedicated to the information design of the subway rider experience. Vignelli and Noorda didn’t just make some old signs look nice, they designed the total subway experience for the rider.

The Standards Manual

Page 171. Behind the stark modernist graphics and typography lies a thorough logical analysis of the Subway system that has informed the system signage to this day.

Are there any restrictions on the use of the manual?

Our agreement with MTA is explicit that the book is only available during the Kickstarter campaign. It will not be available in stores or online after the campaign concludes. We have also agreed to donate 36 copies of the book to the NY Transit Museum to archive.

How do you feel, now that the Manual is having a second life?

We’re excited and proud to have been able to preserve the book. Just last week we noticed a mouse took a bite out of one of the pages—so it seems like our timing is right. Maybe he mistook Swiss style for Swiss cheese.

The Standards Manual

Page 10. Every possible letter combination and the spacing that must be allowed between each letter was specified. This level of fastidious detail was a hallmark of Bob Noorda and Massimo Vignelli’s work.

The International Design IssueThe October issue of Print, Steven Heller explores the Evolution of design magazines and speaks with the founders of the independent book publisher, Unit Editions. The International Design Issue explores everything from the posters of Cuban designers to the street art in Cairo to the UN’s design team.