Why NYC's Subway Font Should Matter to Small Businesses

September 6, 2016 • 10 min read
Ahmad El-Najjar

Ahmad El-Najjar


You’ve seen Helvetica. This typeface has blazoned the side of airlines, corporate logos, and book covers for over 50 years. It’s the New York City subway font. Still not sure you’ve seen it? Do you use Facebook along with nearly 1.3 billion other people on Earth? So, yeah, you’ve seen Helvetica. 

But why has this one typeface assumed such global domination? And why should you, small business owner, care? The astonishing popularity of Helvetica is itself a demonstration of how important typography is, but let’s start at the beginning.

Typography and business

Typography is simply the style, arrangement, or appearance of printed letters on a page, or installed on a subway wall. If your customers’ first contact with your business is anything that includes words—say, your website, an ad, or the sign outside your business—then it’s essential that the way those words are presented doesn’t turn people off.

You might reasonably think that the difference in typeface (what most of us think of as “font”) for a word like “Laundromat” or the phrase “Tax Professional” would be moot. Surely, one either needs to do one’s laundry or one’s taxes, or one does not.

But you would be forgetting how unreasonable people so often are.

It’s no secret that we respond better to content that evokes emotions—which is, of course, precisely the opposite of using reason. That investment we have in our emotional experience, even if it’s in response to a commercial for antacid, is one reason typography matters. It’s also the one we’re most likely to ignore or forget about. Like all the other, more prominent aspects of content, typography evokes emotions. Yes, a particular typeface, its size, and spacing can actually affect how we feel about the words themselves, even when those words are “Tax Professional.”

Which tax preparer are you going to trust?

tax pro font

Even if you didn’t know that the second typeface is called Comic Sans, you probably didn’t choose it. One writer described Baskerville, the first one, as “stentorian and sober-minded, a grave-faced TV anchor reading the news,” while “Comic Sans is our gossipy idiot cousin.” If you’re choosing a tax preparer, you’re probably going to go with “sober-minded” rather than “gossipy idiot.” As well you should.

It’s no accident that your reaction to Comic Sans was, in the context of your financial well-being, negative. Vincent Connare, the designer of Comic Sans, explained, “When I designed Comic Sans, there was no expectation of including the font in applications other than those intended for children.” As their names often suggest, typefaces are “an artistic interpretation, or design” of words and numbers, designed to evoke particular moods, serious or jokey, creepy or sophisticated.

kristen itc font.ed
Looking for something even less professional than Comic Sans? Meet Kristen ITC.

If you’re thinking, hang on, Baskerville and Comic Sans are fonts, you would be wrong, but don’t feel bad. Most of us, who are not members of the exclusive International Society of Typographic Designers  (I hear they have cool decoder rings), use the words “typeface” and “font” interchangeably. But for professionals, fonts are actually the variations of a typeface. For example, italic and bold are fonts of a given typeface, which might be Times, or Proxima Nova, or, of course, Helvetica. In other words, the typeface Comic Sans will look like your gossipy idiot cousin no matter what font it’s in: bold, italic, or roman.

Why it matters

Typography is more than selecting fonts. It is the study of how humans read,” both in a cognitive sense of how we process visual information, and in a psychological sense. Fortunately, you don’t need to read up on theories of perception (or psychology) to reap the rewards of good typography.

Here’s what good typography can do:

  • Make your text reader-friendly
  • Inform readers which information is most important (aka information hierarchy)
  • Establish the right mood for your pitch or product
  • Establish trust in your brand
  • Help create a consistent brand identity

As it happens, the story of Helvetica and the NYC subway system is a good example of how we respond to typography.

Meet Helvetica, the NYC subway font

The New York City subway system jolted into life in 1904, a long time ago and during a period without the design standards we recognize today.

The subway system is “an amalgamation of three separate systems,” the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) from 1904, the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT) from 1908, and the Independent (IND) from 1932. These were connected in 1940 to create the labyrinth that is the NYC subway system.

subway font
The subway font through history, courtesy of Urban 75.

This Frankenstein’s monster of a transportation system meant there were many inconsistencies when the subway system was brought together under one authority. In 1979, a writer for the New York Times described the chaos: ”In many stations, the signs are so confusing that one is tempted to wish they were not there at all—a wish that is, in fact, granted in numerous other stations and on all too many of the subway cars themselves. And the system is so complex that one might feel signs make very little difference—a rider may as easily find his destination by taking a chance as by any sort of careful planning.”

The last thing you want in a transit system is folks not being able to find their way around, or worse still, not even knowing where they are. Standardizing the subway font was an important step. Helvetica would become the solution to the system’s less-than-helpful signage.

massimo vignelliIn 1966 the New York City Transportation Authority (NYCTA), at the urging of the New York Museum of Modern Art, hired a consultant from the Unimark firm to design typography and signage that would be consistent throughout the system. This consultant was graphic designer Massimo Vignelli. If his name doesn’t ring a bell, maybe some of his work will look familiar (right).

Initially, the NYCTA began incorporating a uniform signage system using the Standard Medium typeface for the subway font. In 1989, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) introduced new graphic standards, in order to expand uniformity across the entire New York City Metro area. And, it was in 1989 that Helvetica would became the new standard subway font.

Why Helvetica?

knollHow do companies, or individuals, for that matter, choose a font or typeface? What’s so special about Helvetica? It is, in fact, its utter un-specialness that makes Helvetica so special. The typeface’s designers, Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann, wanted to get away from whimsical typefaces with personality. Instead, they set out to design a completely neutral typeface. Helvetica was the typeface they created to express complete neutrality.

lufthansaIt’s this neutrality that made Helvetica such a popular typeface, used for many corporate logos throughout the 60’s and 70’s, the most famous subway font in the United States. It remains popular in the 21st century.

But, what does it mean for a typeface to be “neutral”?

Helvetica uses negative space, or the space around an object, to great effect, making the characters extremely legible. is The characters in Helvetica are visually appealing to our brains because they aren’t too crowded or too far apart; they’re just right.

Helvetica is very easy to read from any angle, as well as remaining legible while in motion. This is an obvious advantage for a subway font, given all the people moving to and fro in a station, glancing at signs for directions. Now, imagine if even a small percentage of the one billion people who ride the NYC subway every year had to stop in order to read the signs—or couldn’t tell what station they were pulling into until it was too late to disembark. Talk about congestion!  

american apparelHelvetica’s neutrality, its apparent lack of personality, is what makes it work so beautifully in the NYC subway system, and also what’s made it so popular more broadly. Helvetica does not pass judgment on the words it forms. It looks respectable but not formal. It is approachable without being indiscreet. It’s encouraged 1.3 billion people trust Facebook. ‘Nuff said.

Make typography work for you

But it’s just not the emotional response that a typeface evokes (or doesn’t) that matters.

To figure out how typography affects us, researchers looked at how people experienced time while they were reading articles with good and bad typography, respectively. Their hypothesis was based on the real psychological phenomenon that when you’re enjoying something (or concentrating) you lose track of time as opposed to when you’re bored or frustrated which makes it seem like time is moving slower—a state psychologists and others have come to call “flow.” Reading good typography, they figured, would be similar to experiencing flow, while reading bad typography would seem to take longer, making readers feel the time passing. 

Take a look at the two examples the researchers used:


Clearly (and immediately) one is easier to read. It turns out that the height, the thickness—what the pros refer to as “weight”—and the space between the characters all function to make the typeface easy to read—or not.

But good typography goes beyond simply ease of reading. The researchers found that when they interrupted each set of subjects after 15 minutes of reading, those reading the poor typography “underestimated their reading time by 24 seconds on average, while participants in the good typography condition underestimated their reading time by 3 minutes and 18 seconds on average.” Following the reading exercise, they then had both sets of subjects perform a test puzzle for cognitive ability and found that nearly half of the participants who read the “good” version solved the puzzle as opposed to none of the participants who read the “bad” version.  

In other words, bad typography makes the experience of reading less pleasant, and actually makes thinking harder.

So, in a nutshell, yes, typography matters, even if you’re not choosing a subway font.

The basics: Three typography questions to ask

Some general questions to keep in mind are:

  1. Is it easy and pleasant to read?
  2. What mood are you going for with your messaging? Does the typeface match?
  3. How does the typeface look on different devices (phone vs computer or Android vs iOS)?

For a great and thorough introduction to designing your typography, check out Smashing Magazine’s “What Font Should I Use? Five Principles for Choosing and Using Typefaces. It offers a clear explanation of which kinds of typefaces work together, and which don’t, as well as how not to overdo it with those tempting personality-filled typefaces, like Papyrus and Curlz.

There are also some great tools out there to help you on your way to typographic success. If you come across a website that is using a typeface (and font) you’re really impressed by, you can use a Google Chrome app called WhatFont to identify it. Another great resource is Google fonts, a database of great fonts available for download that are—hallelujah!—already optimized for being displayed on Internet (like your website and mobile app).

Typography is pretty fascinating, and there’s plenty to geek out on. Canva Design School’s “The Anatomy of Typography” is a good start, identifying all the possible parts of a character. For a another great read on how we respond to typography, there’s filmmaker Errol Morris’s now-famous experiment in the New York Times, suggesting that we’re more likely to believe something is true if it’s in a “serious”-looking typeface. (And few coffee table books are as lovely as those obsessing over the history and analysis of typography.)


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