Speaking notes from a presentation I gave on 2007.09.12 at ATypI Brighton 2007. See also:
A word about images
I worked like a dog all summer on this project. Images for this page are broken and I cannot justify the time commitment to fix them. You have more than ample opportunity to view the images elsewhere.
I have an big interest in functional typography. I’m not saying anything about other forms of typography, so don’t go off the deep end and make any assumptions, but what I’m really interested in is making the uses of typography that should be functional actually functional. Things like captioning and subtitling, and of course public signage.
What we’re here to discuss today
- I’m here to talk about the subway in Toronto, run by the Toronto Transit Commission, the TTC.
- It’s a story about:
This, my friends, is the story of type in the Toronto subway. It’s the story of a unique typographic heritage that the TTC is totally blowing.
- A 50-year-old custom font that nobody else has.
- A subway that is lined with washroom tiles.
- A system that hired a wayfinding expert, paid him to install and test a new signage system, then ignored it after the new system tested better than the old one.
- A billion-dollar corporation that cloned Massimo Vignelli’s work for the New York subway from 40 years ago, but won’t admit it.
- A billion-dollar corporation that refuses to test its signage.
- A billion-dollar corporation that uses as its main font a Helvetica clone that came free with CorelDraw.
- I got interested in this back in 1993–94, and my interest was rekindled in 2006 when I kept seeing shitty laser-printed tacked-up signs in the subway. Then I started doing some digging. Since then, I’ve collected about ` and I totally own the topic.
About the subway
- We’ve got 69 stations on four lines. That isn’t a lot.
- We’ve had a subway since 1954. From the very start we had a unique font on the walls.
- The walls themselves are interesting. In nearly all cases, the walls are finished in tiles. Originally we used these glossy large-format Vitrolite tiles, then different kinds of tiles later.
- Yes, our subway really does look like a public washroom, and we’re OK with that.
- The TTC’s custom subway font is sandblasted into the walls in nearly all cases. Here are some photos.
- The font doesn’t have a name and nobody knows who designed it. I have what are believed to be the original drawings for the typeface, but they’re dated 1960, which is six years after the subway opened.
- It’s a geometric sansserif, upper case only, with some unusual features:
- Low waist of the R.
- Points of A V N W M that extend past the baseline or cap height.
- What we’d consider nowadays to be an quite a heavy weight for signage, though you also find some rare usages of a light weight for which we don’t have any drawings.
- There are different kinds of signfaces that use the TTC font, not just sandblasted letters.
- Very early white signs with black letters.
- Backlit box signs with white type on black.
- And the most cherished of all, massive enamelled-steel plates that have lasted almost without a blemish for 40 years or longer.
- These signs have never really been tested, but they appear to be mostly functional.
- Nonetheless, the TTC is run by jumped-up motormen and engineers and old guys who think anything related to “print” or “design” is girly and merely decorative. So, starting in the 1970s, the TTC began to pollute its nice tidy uniform design.
- They extended the first subway line north and also south around a loop at the southern point of downtown.
- They opened a crosstown line with the original fonts.
- They they renovated nearly all the first subway stations. They destroyed the original Vitrolite tiles in all but one of them and replacing them with haphazard tiles and haphazard fonts. I've got good and bad examples here.
- Then they extended the first line again, with each station ostensibly using nothing but Univers.
- Then they opened a suburban line using toy trains. It uses signage in Helvetica on curved-metal blades.
- Then they opened a couple of extra stations here and there using Helvetica.
- All the while, behind the scenes they were replacing signage with whatever they could get their hands on, mostly Helvetica. Have a look here at the weird arrow, where the arrow is carved out of negative space.
- And finally they spent nearly a billion bucks on a new five-station subway line to nowhere using fake Helvetica.
- What we’ve got now is a completely unplanned mixture of signs in the true TTC typeface, and signs in Helvetica, fake Helvetica, Univers... and Arial.
- Now, it’s really hard to get this point across to the TTC, except to the head of engineering, who, not coincidentally, is an architect and not a man, but when your signage is all hither and yon like this then (a) people get lost, especially tourists and people who haven’t learned the system the hard way, and (b) your entire subway system looks like shit and people are encouraged not to believe a word your signs say.
And they did try to fix it
- In the early 1990s, the TTC hired Paul Arthur to develop a new signage system. He was a British-born Canadian graphic designer. He died in 2001.
- He was a pioneer of signage and wayfinding.
- He designed the pictographs at Expo 67 in Montreal.
- He cowrote a couple of books, the most important of which is Wayfinding: People, Signs & Architecture.
I met him when I was assigned to write a story about the TTC redesign. Yes, I discovered signage by getting assigned to it. It certainly sent me down an unexpected path.
TTC spent about a quarter of a million dollars coming up with new designs.
- Lance Wyman helped out. You may know him from the Mexico City Olympics. For the TTC, Lance Wyman drew a lot of new pictographs for subway stations.
- They remade one half of one station, St. George, an interchange between two lines. The entire east end of the station, on all levels, was made over with the new Paul Arthur signs, while the west end was left intact.
Some of the features of the Paul Arthur system:
- He used Gill Sans.
Paul was English and this was really a holdover from his childhood.
He considered all sansserifs equally legible.
- Gill Sans in this case was too light a weight for signage, though they did expand the tracking.
- As ever, there is the notorious difficulty of distinguishing I, l, and 1 in Gill Sans. Some of Paul Arthur’s drawings show the straight-line 1, others the real numeral 1.
- Subway lines would no longer have names. The names are ridiculous in Toronto. They tend to relate to the streets under which the subway runs, which themselves aren’t accurate. We’ve got the Yonge-University-Spadina line (yes, three names for one line), the Bloor-Danforth line, the Scarborough RT (Scarborough is the neighbourhood, not the street; RT means rapid transit), and the Sheppard line.
- In the new system, lines would each get a colour and a number. And the colour would be written out in words to be accessible to colourblind people.
- Every station had a strapline above the tracks on the train-wall side in the line colour, with the name written out and the station’s custom pictograph. In principle, even if you couldn’t read you could at least find your station.
- They tested the St. George prototype with four groups – the “general population,” meaning riders without disabilities who could read English; the visually impaired; a “multicultural” group, that is, English-as-a-second-language speakers; and an English-speaking group “with a low level of literacy,” who were often students.
- The low-vision people hated all the signs, but they hated the new ones less, and all the other groups preferred the new signs.
- This was just an opinion survey, not a test of tasks and performance. Nonetheless, the new signs were deemed better.
- So the TTC ignored them. Literally.
- It would have cost about $8 million to convert the whole subway to the new system, but the Toronto Transit Commission never voted on doing that. It was never brought to the elected commissioners. It was killed internally, and there are no records of how that happened.
- And many of the Paul Arthur signs were simply left in place. They’re still there 14 years later!
- I’ve now made two presentations before the actual Toronto Transit Commission – they’re all elected city councillors – to talk about signage and wayfinding. I was politely received.
- The first time, the commissioners ordered an internal report on the state of signage.
- I had suggested they start by doing a numerical inventory of the categories of signs in the system. I was willing to sweat out the summer taking hundreds of pictures, all of which would be posted online, and writing a report about the whole thing. Engineers love numbers, and numbers they would get. But the TTC wouldn’t bite.
- The second time I presented, I was cheerfully ignored.
- I did have a meeting with TTC staff, which I know amounted to nothing because I requested all the records pertaining to me and/or signage. I’ve had all the effect of a neutrino whizzing through the earth.
- Oh, except for one thing: They righteously went around and removed handwritten signs. Or so they think; I have a whole set of photos of the signs they missed.
Then there was the Sheppard subway
- TTC wanted to expand its subway lines in the 1990s. The plan was to run two new lines across midtown Toronto on Eglinton Ave. West and on Sheppard Ave. East and West.
- But a new provincial government was elected that hated Toronto. They tried to scotch the whole project. What we ended up with was five stations on Sheppard Ave. East that end in the middle of nowhere. And the five-station Sheppard line cost $933 million to build.
- For a nice new subway line, you need nice new signs. So, guess what, the TTC ignored the Paul Arthur designs they'd already paid for and cooked something up themselves.
- They threw together two overhead signs and installed them – where else? – at St. George station. And of course they’re still up today!
- And the biggest type on those signs is set in... Arial.
- Oh, but one of the signs could not even construct a lower-case g correctly.
- So, to recap St. George station: It’s got more than half of its original signs, or at least signs from the 1980s, plus many of the Paul Arthur prototype signs from the early ’90s, plus the Sheppard prototype signs. Still. Today.
- Anyway, they threw together these fake-Helvetica signs and ran them by a dozen people. And from that they wrote a 350-page instruction manual on how to clone Massimo Vignelli’s designs for the New York City subway in the ’60s.
- You see, Toronto has an inferiority complex. Still. Today. Deep down, we wish we were as good as New York. The fact that we’re better than New York on a lot of scores means nothing. New York is the summit of a mountain we can never reach. But it also means that anything New York does is axiomatically the best.
- That means the use of Helvetica for transit signage. Now, in the 1960s, Massimo Vignelli chose Helvetica because he’s an arch-Modernist. But we don’t live in the 1960s. We have engineered signage fonts now, and we can design new engineered sign fonts if we need them, and we know a whole lot more about testing.
- But TTC staff are visual illiterates and Windows users and they have no taste whatsoever. Their powers of analysis begin and end with “I can read it” and “It looks clean.”
- So what do we have in the Sheppard subway? Wall-to-wall Helvetica. And half the time it’s backlit or electronically scrunched.
- It looks pleasingly uniform compared to the mishmash on the other lines, but is that enough? No, not for transit signage, because it has to perform.
- Now, look, in a room like this one do I have to give you the song-and-dance showing that Helvetica performs poorly for signage? Even if we didn’t have evidence already, my business partner Marc Sullivan and I demonstrated it for another transit system. Marc presented our findings at ATypI 2003 in Vancouver.
- And there’s more: What the TTC is using isn’t real Helvetica or Helvetica Neue. It is actually Swiss 721, the Bitstream clone that comes free with CorelDraw.
Remember that report that the TTC commissioners ordered after my first presentation? Here’s what it said about Helvetica:
Now, how was fake Helvetica “chosen” exactly?
Swiss 721 Medium Bold Text is a licensed font, with more neutral and contemporary characteristics. It was selected as the base font for reasons of clarity and legibility, and is intended for use in all wayfinding-, information- and safety-signage applications.
- The most interesting point about the signs in the Sheppard subway is the fact that the man who developed them cannot use them anymore.
So, to say that again, the man who oversaw the Sheppard signs cannot get out of Sheppard station using them.
- Bob Brent was the manager in charge at the time. He’s the one who carried out the tiny dozen-person user test with the two signs in St. George that are typeset in Arial.
- He’s been using a wheelchair or a walker for the last year or so, and twice in that time he's been unable to find an accessible exit just by reading his own signs.
- The TTC did give us a little sop to the past in the Sheppard subway. The name of the station on the train-wall side uses the old TTC font. Except the font is too small and too tightly spaced. They couldn’t even get that right, in other words.
Type in the Toronto subway is a story of just how much of a mess you can make without adult supervision. They started out with something nobody else had and then, through a combination of ignorance and bad taste, they spent 50 years destroying it.
Some photos by David Topping, Luke Tymowski, or Craig James White, used by permission or in accordance with Creative Commons licensing.