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NYC Subway Poster Designers Talk Vignelli, Standards and the Fetish for Physical Design

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Designer Hamish Smyth found more than the admiration of graphic design nerds everywhere when he, along with Pentagram colleague and co-creator Jesse Reed, re-released Massimo Vignelli's New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual via Kickstarter. The project, which successfully raised more than $800,000 to reissue a book about subway signage, also inadvertently introduced him to his girlfriend, Alex Daly, whose creative services agency, Vann Alexandra, supports crowdfunding campaigns. Staying true to form, the duo decided their next move should be collaborating on a graphic design-oriented Kickstarter, The New York City Subway: 468 stations. 1 poster, a grid of small signs representing every city subway stop, from 1st Av to Zerega Av. Curbed spoke with Smyth and Daly about their new project, which has already quadrupled its $29,800 fundraising goal, and the enduring appeal of the subway.


What do you think explains the enduring appeal of the Transit Authority Graphic Standards Manual and the subway system?
Hamish: "I think there are two groups of people who are buying this. People like me, nerdy graphic designers, they're into this because they're really into Massimo, the Swiss typography and design, which has become fetishized online over time, sort of inside baseball kind of stuff. The second and more interesting group is people who see these signs every day. They're such a part of the fabric of the city. They're like the voice of the city. They look so similar and striking in black, they've become a total icon. "

Alex: "I think that the best way to gauge this is the crowdfunding campaign. It's telling that it's so popular right now. There's this obsession with what is old and still beautiful, and we're seeing a reaction in such a big way. Designers are kind of coming out of the woodworks with this project, talking about it on Twitter and online. When we discussed doing the Standards Manual, we thought we'd hit the goal just barely. Same for the poster, we thought we'd do well, then we hit the goal by lunch."

Hamish: "Part of the reason they've become so popular in the last few years is that the design world has gone 180 degrees, it's all online. Everything is done on computer, even things done by hand are scanned in later. There's a pureness to this that's very appealing, especially for designers. Few get to work on jobs, like the original subway manual, that are so expansive."

What's your next project?
Hamish: "There are a few things in the works, but I really don't want to release all the details right now since they're not fully locked down. I have two transit-related projects lined up, and another standards manual project that's not transit related, but in a similar vein."

When you had the original 468 stations poster hanging in your apartment, did you ever start marking off the stops you'd visited, or try to visit them all?
Hamish: "I've talked about that but never had the time."

Alex: "We should think about that as a weekend getaway."

Hamish: "Some guy contacted us and said he's seen all the stations in the city in the shortest amount of time. He's in the Guinness Book of World Records. [Editor's note, that time is 21 hours, 49 minutes, 35 seconds]

Did you ever get any reaction from Massimo or his family about your project?
Hamish: "Sadly, he passed away while we were planning the Standards Manual, but his son, Luca, a photographer we know from Pentagram, said he was really into the Standards Manual and said Massimo would have loved it. He saw the copy we were working with, which was old and yellowed, so he gave us one of Massimo's old, preserved copies, with hand-drawn notes."

Having been so engrossed in subway signage and standards, what are some of the odd features of the book, or the system, that stick out to you?
Hamish: "One of the coolest things about the Manual is the way it's written. It's really straightforward and blunt, and says things like, 'Standard Medium has been chosen for it's exceptional readability, and it's the only typeface that will be used in the system.' It's also cool the way the information architecture was done. They really thought about it, how and where people needed to see the information, which wasn't as common then."

Have these projects informed your work, or lead to other project?
Alex: "It brought me into the graphic design world. I started out raising money for projects for documentary filmmakers, artists and entrepreneurs. We work with so many now. It's such a great category."

Hamish: "For me, it's kind of the opposite. The MTA was a client [at Pentagram] before we did the Standards Manual, so I started conversations with them. My job at Pentagram has helped make this happen. The poster came out of a big project I did with my old boss Michael Bierut, WalkNYC, where we had to create map and signage near subway entrances. I sort of filed it away for a rainy day. That project, WalkNYC, brought us other signage work at Pentagram, but as far as doing a signage project as a solo designer, that's a pretty big endeavor."

New Insights From Late Subway Sign Maestro Massimo Vignelli [Curbed New York]
Awesome 'Nerdy Poster' Combines All 468 Subway Stop Signs [Curbed New York]