MASSIMO VIGNELLI AND THE ELLIS ISLAND OF TYPOGRAPHY

Massimo Vignelli And The Ellis Island Of Typography

Massimo Vignelli, the man who created the graphic standards for the NYC Subway system in 1970, died in May.  For many visitors and immigrants, temporary or permanent, his bold use of Helvetica in the subterranean world of the subways is the typeface they first witness upon entering present - day New York, much as Ellis Island was  their entry point at the turn of the century. The simplicity of the design imbues a calming typographical energy through a chaotic and seemingly endless array of tunnels created by industrial hedgehogs. 

Helvetica was developed in 1957 by Swiss designers Max Miedinger with Eduard Hoffmann, but Vignellis use of it in the subway gave it a timeless aura. When you live in NYC, the capitalized letters of the subway lines are  reassuring  signposts  on your way home, as familiar as the tree-lined streets that you would drive if you lived in the suburbs. But in the subways the view is much more   archeological than environmental, and a hell of a lot noisier. 

Vignelli was  singularly influential at that  decisive time in  typographical history ,  the 60s and 70s, when the image of a company was defined by its font.  His company Unimark  ,  founded in 1964, worked with companies such as Ford, JC Penney and American Airlines. But to me his best work is in the subways of NYC,   which delineate s   the relationship between being lost / found, confined  /  free, illiterate  / literate. As he said, "Design is a profession that takes care of everything around us." I could n' t agree more, and as I say ,  "Design is the  organization  of nature ;  nature is the organization of design."

Vignelli gave shape to the new American interface of how we interact with things unnatural, at the same time defining how we can grasp complexity by simplifying its form.   T o quote Steve Jobs,  "Simple can be harder than complex .  You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” 

Vignelli moved a few mountains. 

Here is the website  with the complete New York Transit Graphic Standards Manual from 1970, created by Vignelli. 

Via [The Standard Manual]