Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Transcript of ‘Inscribed in the Living Tile: Type in the Toronto Subway’

I gave a presentation on 2007.09.12 at ATypI Brighton 2007. Kaveh Bazargan recorded videos of all sessions. The plan was to caption the video, but the free Magpie captioning software – still the only zero-cost option – won’t even install on my machines, and WGBH thinks this is no problem at all. So you’ll have to live with a transcript.

Illustrations are not provided because the work involved is wildly in excess of the benefit. You already have access to many sources of the illustrations.


Next up is Joe Clark –

[muffled voices]

– who’s got the wonderful title “Don’t Show Printouts to Grannies and Call That a Test.”

No, that was last week.

[audience laughter]

OK, this is “Inscribed in the Living Tile: Type in the Toronto Subway.”

I was also at TypeTech. It’s the second one.

BERRY (surprised):
Oh, really?

“Oh, really?”

You’ve got two of them there.

Yeah. And there are people who did four, OK?

I think probably I’d better let Joe introduce himself, since I’m not doing a very good job of it.

So can I just do that?

Oh. Well. All right.

Um, thanks, John, for that rousing introduction.

Um, yeah, OK.

But do introduce yourself.

All right. Fine. I’m Joe Clark. I’m from Toronto. And I’ve been interested in typography for over 25 years. Started when I was a child when I bumped into an open-captioned TV program. I wrote the captioning company to find out exactly why their w was taller than the other lower-case letters and their quotation marks were simply two dots.

And thus began my interests in typography and accessibility for people with disabilities. And to the extent that I make a living, that’s how I earn my living – in accessibility.

But since I live in Toronto and have an interest in typography – you’ll find out more about the precise history of this during the talk – but I know quite a bit now about the type in the Toronto subway and that is our topic for today.

Yes, you can literally take the bus in Toronto and between the – it cycles through the destination and it says I’M A NEW BUS. Classy, huh?

Before I begin, as I mentioned at the previous talk at TypeTech, I’m trying to do something significant about the Dutch type designer Evert Bloemsma, who died in 2005. He’s the designer of such typefaces as Cocon, Legato, Avance, Balance. I think he’s the most interesting type designer of the latter half of the 20th century, if not the whole thing. It’s very difficult to find out information about him unless one is Dutch or Dutch-speaking.

So, if anyone in the room, or anyone who knows someone in the room, can – or anyone in the room who knows someone, has some knowledge about Evert, please contact me by one way or another, because I’d like to do justice to him.

Right. So our topic today: “Inscribed in the Living Tile: Type in the Toronto Subway.”

This is my now-classic, ultra-minimalist, you know, slide typography. That’s Critter by LettError, by the way, designed for MTV. So it’s super-minimalist because I’m not a graphic designer and I’m used to giving presentations to blind people who don’t give a shit about the slides anyway.

But what would this look like if, say, David Carson did it? Probably something like that, right? That would be the David Carson version of the slide. All right.

What would be the Peter Saville version? [mild laughter] Probably something like that, right?

Of course, we have to participate in the current Internet meme, LOLCATS, or, in this case, LOLTYPI. And if you were at the TypeTech presentation, I did another LOLTYPI with the exact same slogan.

Fun thing to note about this:
The word “yield” is misspelled – On a billion-dollar public transit system in the largest city in Canada.

You don’t have to take notes if you don’t want to. I always put speaking notes up on my Web site, at Just follow the links from there. Probably this week those speaking notes will be up.

I also wrote a 16,000-word paper, “Inscribed in the Living Tile: Type in the Toronto Subway.” It’s 50 pages, 50 illustrations, 70 citations. I went to the archives and dug through the original material. It’s on the conference CD for convenience, and you can read it on the plane on the way back. It’s also up on my Web site. Because everything I post is standards-compliant, it’ll work in all your browsers, even shitty ones like IE6, but I doubt many of you use that.

Please send me an E-mail at

Oh, and by the way, this is the time in my presentation where, ritually, I take a photograph of my own audience. So: If you want to be meta about it, this is when you haul out your digicams and take a photograph of me photographing you. So, whenever you’re ready, you may photograph me as I photograph you. Now, if you get it right, we can have our flashes going off at the same time, ruining both our pictures. Would you like me to – here, I’ll model holding the camera while you take – there we go. Yeah. Exactly. Right.

I was at ATypI 2003 in Vancouver talking about screenfonts for captioning and subtitling. Research into screenfonts for captioning and subtitling was my topic at TypeTech.

All right. Now, the interesting thing is that not only did I have that, you know, curious initiation into typography, well, later I was a daily-newspaper and magazine journalist. I wrote a column on graphic and industrial design for one of the Toronto newspapers, the Globe and Mail. I’ve written in all the usual design publications. Strangely further, in the 1980s I worked as a typesetter on CompuGraphic photosetting equipment, which familiarized me with such “typefaces” as Triumvirate and Frontiera, if any of you old people know about those. I have a junior degree in engineering and a B.A. in linguistics, which gives me a sort of technical/humanities background.

I run a research project, the Open & Closed Project – which has no goddamned funding yet – the main task of which is to write standards for the practice of captioning, subtitling, audio description for the blind, and dubbing. But an offshoot project to that deals with screenfonts, which was the topic of the previous one.

I have a very big interest in functional typography. I’m not saying anything about any other kind of typography, right, so don’t go off the deep end on that, but it’s just I’m really interested making sure that forms of typography that are intended to be functional genuinely are, right? An example of that would be captioning and subtitling, or our topic today, public signage.

All right. So: What are we here to talk about? I’m here to tell you about the subway in Toronto, run by the Toronto Transit Commission, the TTC. And you’ll be hearing that acronym a lot. The Toronto Transit Commission, the TTC.

This is a story about:

[some people murmuring]

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 completely blowing.

I got interested in this back in 1993/1994, and in 2006, winter 2006, I kept seeing these, you know, tacky, taped-up signs, laser-printed, in the subway. And the 13-year-old dormant memory of type in the TTC was rekindled. I started doing a bit more research. Since then, I’ve collected over 1,200 photographs of TTC signage and I totally own the topic.

All right. The subway. We’ve got only 69 stations. One line on the London Underground has slightly more than that.

This is not the official TTC map. This is another map, used under fair dealing, far superior to the official one, which I wouldn’t, you know, wouldn’t ruin your Sunday morning by showing to you.

We’ve had a subway since 1954. From the very start we had a unique font on the walls. Those walls are interesting. In nearly all cases, they are covered with tiles. And initially we used these glossy large-format tiles called Vitrolite, OK? And 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. So let’s look at some examples.

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, six years after the subway opened. It’s a geometric sansserif, upper case only, with some rather interesting features, such as the low waist of the R. The points of the M and N, the A, the V and W that extend above the cap height or below the baseline. It has what we’d consider these days to be quite a heavy weight for signage, though you do find some rare usages of it in a light weight for which we don’t have any drawings.

There are different kinds of signfaces using the TTC font, not just letters sandblasted into tiles.

These signs have never really been tested, but they appear to be functional.

Nonetheless, the TTC is run by jumped-up motormen and old guys and engineers who think anything related to “print” is girly and decorative. So, starting in the 1970s, the TTC began to pollute its nice tidy uniform design.

I’ve got some good and bad examples here. Let’s start with the bad one. That’s Dundas station, the second-heaviest-used station in the system. Yes, those tiles really are chartreuse, right? It’s actually different colours of chartreuse within each tile. It’s a graduated filter of chartreuse. And that’s Univers.

Much nicer example: Rosedale station, in a neighbourhood just as nice as the name, with that sort of dense rhomboid kind of pattern.

Then they extended that first subway line one more time, and all those stations ostensibly used nothing but Univers. Here’s Dupont, a unique station, covered in these tiny little, you know, £2-coin-sized tiles in an organic pattern with scarcely any right angles.

Then they opened a suburban line using toy trains. Really. You can only fit about 20 people on them. It uses signage in Helvetica on curved-metal blades. There is Midland.

And they opened a couple of extra stations here or there using Helvetica. Here’s North York Centre when they were painting the benches. I thought that was a good time to snap a picture.

And, all the while, behind the scenes they were replacing signage with whatever they could get their hands on, which was mostly Helvetica. So have a look at this, with these oddball arrows that are carved out of negative space.

By the way: Most of you have never been to the subway. How many people think that reads “Northbound Bloor” and “Southbound Trains”? Well, a lot of people do. So you’re the one who misread it that way. Kudos to the rest of you.

Here’s another example, back at Bathurst station. You can see the aboriginal TTC typeface on the other side, and this, you know, half-assed attempt at wayfinding in Helvetica capitals with the negative-space arrow.

And finally they spent nearly a billion bucks on a five-station subway line to nowhere that used fake Helvetica.

Now, what we’ve got – what we have at the present time is a completely unplanned system with a mishmash of different eras, typefaces, styles, with signs in Helvetica, fake Helvetica, Univers, the original TTC font, and Arial.

Now, it’s really hard to get this point across to the TTC – except to the head of engineering, who, coincidentally, is not an engineer, she’s an architect, and she’s a she, not a he – but if your signs are a mishmash like this, then, first of all, people get lost, especially tourists and people who don’t know the system by heart, and your entire subway system looks like shit, and it, you know, it teaches people not to believe any of the signs, right? In some cases that’s literally true.

Let’s have a look at this one. A sign at Bathurst station, which, after you get past the two pictographs, says in fake Helvetica “Westbound Trains, Buses & Streetcars.” The problem is the only vehicle that moves westbound at Bathurst is the train. The buses and streetcars go north and south. There is no way to take a westbound streetcar or train from Bathurst station, right? This sign lies to you.

Now, they did try to fix it. In the 1990s, the TTC hired Paul Arthur to design a new signage system. He was a British-born Canadian graphic designer. He died in 2001. He was a pioneer of signage and wayfinding. For example, he designed the pictographs at Expo 67 in Montreal, often seen as a progenitor of pictograph usage worldwide. He wrote or 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 his redesign for the TTC. Yes, I discovered the entire topic of signage by having it assigned to me. And it certainly sent me down an unexpected path.

TTC spent about a quarter of a million dollars coming up with a set of new designs. Lance Wyman helped out. You may know him from the Mexico City Olympics. For the TTC, Lance Wyman designed a host of new pictographs for subway stations.

They made over one half of one station, St. George, which is a terminus between two lines. The entire east end of the station, on all levels, was made over with the new system, and the west end was left intact.

Some of the features of the Paul Arthur system: Well, he used Gill Sans. Paul was English and this was really a holdover from his childhood. He considered all sansserifs equally legible. Now, Gill Sans in this usage is way too light a weight for signage. The spacing is too close, even after they expanded the tracking. And as ever with Gill Sans, there’s the notorious difficulty of differentiating I, l, and 1, which, in most drawings, are simply the same vertical line. Some of Paul Arthur’s specification drawings show the interchangeable I/l/1, and some of them show an alternate Gill Sans with a true numeral 1.

Subway lines would no longer have names, because the names are ridiculous in Toronto. They tend to relate to the streets under which the subway lines run, but even then it’s not accurate. So we’ve got the Yonge-University-Spadina line, and that is three names for one line. The Bloor-Danforth line. The Scarborough RT. Scarborough is a neighbourhood, not a street, and 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.

Um, don’t laugh at that. That’s important, because two of the three lines in the system have confusable colours – amber and green. Those are confusable to people with protanopia and deuteranopia.

Now, every station would have a strapline above the tracks on the train-wall side, with the name written out and the station’s custom pictograph. Here’s St. George. So in principle, even if you couldn’t read for one reason or another – if you were a child, if you just got off the boat from China, doesn’t matter – you could still find your station, in principle.

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, which were English-as-a-second-language speakers; and an English-speaking group “with a low level of literacy,” who were often students.

[audience laughter]

Uh, the low-vision people – why is that funny? Why is that funny? They were not children, they were just students. Um, when you were a student, did you have a high level of literacy? OK, maybe people in this room did. Do you think most students have a high level of literacy? I don’t think so.

The low-vision people hated all the signs, right, but they hated the new ones less, and all the other groups preferred the new signs. It 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 line to the new system, but the Toronto Transit Commission never voted on doing that. It was never brought before the elected commissioners of the Toronto Transit Commission. It was killed internally, and there are no records documenting that. And many of the Paul Arthur signs were simply left intact. They’re still there 14 years later. That photograph is a month old.

I’ve made two presentations now before the TTC about signage and wayfinding. I was politely received. In the first one, they ordered a Commission report on – an internal Commission report on the state of signage. I had suggested they start by doing a numerical analysis – that they actually count all the different signs in a cross-section of subway stations and put them into different categories. I was willing to do that. I was willing to sweat out the summer taking pictures of every sign in, let’s say, 23 of the 69 stations, and then writing a report about it and then posting all the photos online on Flickr. Engineers love numbers, and numbers they would get. But they did not bite.

Now, the second time I presented to the TTC, I was cheerfully ignored. I did have a meeting with TTC staff, which I know amounted to nothing because I requested all the documents about me and signage. I’ve had all the effect of a neutrino whizzing through the earth.

Oh, except for one thing: They did righteously go around and remove handwritten signs, which they thought was a problem. Or so they think. I have a whole series of signs – photographs of signs that are still up there after this purge. That’s the sign that is so widely used it’s in its own laminated holder at my station, Greenwood, to tell people when the last buses go.

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 – one on Eglinton Ave. West and one on Sheppard Ave. East and West. But a new provincial government was elected that hated Toronto. So they tried to scotch the whole project. And after a lot of cajoling, we managed to get one part of one of the subway lines built. Right? So we have a five-station line on Sheppard Ave. East that end in the middle of nowhere. And those five subway stations cost $932 million to build.

Now, for a nice new subway line, you need nice new signage, right? Goes without saying, doesn’t it? So, guess what? The TTC ignored the Paul Arthur designs they’d already bought and paid for and cooked something up themselves. They threw together two overhead signs and installed them – where else? – at St. George. And of course they’re still up today.

And the biggest type on one of those signs is in Arial. But the signs could not even be – the signs could not even bother to construct the letters properly. Look at the small g in George. How exactly do you misconstruct an Arial g? I didn’t know it came as a kit of parts that you could put together the wrong way.

So, let’s 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. All still posted today. Right? All right. So they threw together these fake-Helvetica signs and they ran them by a dozen people, right? That was their test. And from that they wrote a 350-page instruction manual on how to clone Massimo Vignelli’s designs for the New York City subway from the ’60s. Yes, in this manual they actually do contemplate having that many pictographs on the same sign.

Why did they do this? Well, at root it’s because Toronto has an inferiority complex. Ideally we would like to be New York, right? We wish we were as good as them. The fact that we’re better than New York in a lot of ways, right, means nothing. New York is the summit of a mountain we can never climb. But it also means that, to some people in Toronto, everything New York does is axiomatically the best. This means the use of Helvetica for transit signage.

Now, back in the ’60s, Massimo Vignelli chose Helvetica because he’s an arch-Modernist. He believes there are only really eight good typefaces, right? But we don’t live in the 1960s. And few of us are arch-Modernists anymore. We have engineered signage and legibility fonts now. If we need new ones, we can make them. We have a greater understanding of psychology of reading and we know how to test things more.

But the TTC staff are visual illiterates and Windows NT users – there’s exactly one Macintosh in the entire TTC, and it’s operated by the elected chair of the Commission, who’s 29 years old. Their powers of analysis begin and end with “I can read it” and “It looks clean.” So what did they do in the nearly-billion-dollar Sheppard subway? They used wall-to-wall Helvetica. And half the time it’s backlit or electronically scrunched.

So let’s take a look. This is one of the more benign signs in the system, actually. At least in this case you can tell that the transfers to – you can tell that it’s only one thing they’re talking about, the transfer to the Sheppard subway via the west concourse. I’ll show you some more ambiguous examples in a sec. But, by the way, the stripe on the top is ostensibly the colour of the Sheppard line, which is either fuchsia or plum, depending on how you want to look at it. It doesn’t have a – it’s not a nameable colour.

Here’s a good one. You can see the problem of halation there, which you always get with Helvetica because it just doesn’t work with that application. The question is: How many destinations do we have here? Three, probably. It’s probably Yonge Street, buses, and Harlandale Avenue. It probably is, right? OK, what about this one? More halation, and it’s not the projector. It really does look this bad.

That’s scrunched fake Helvetica. How many destinations do we have here? Is that the YMCA, Sheppard Avenue, and Kenaston Gardens, or is it Sheppard Avenue and the Kenaston Gardens YMCA? By the way, can you really read that elevator picto? Probably not, huh?

Here’s a good shot of the backlist signs and the overhead signs that run in an entire channel across the full width of the platform. Now, it does look pleasingly uniform compared to the mishmash of styles on all the other stations, but is that enough?

Well, no. As everyone in this room knows, for transit signage, you have to prove that it performs. In a room like this one I’m sure I don’t have to go into the song-and-dance of why Helvetica performs poorly for signage. Even if you didn’t know that already, my business partner and I had given presentations on this at ATypI Vancouver. We did work for another transit system in Toronto, the commuter railroad called GO Transit, in which we proved to them that Helvetica had performance deficits compared to other typefaces. We took Helvetica and five other candidate typefaces – rationally chosen candidate typefaces, not ringers like Times and Courier – and made positive and negative sharp and blurry signs in large format, tacked them up inside a boardroom, and walked them through each one of those signs. And we were able to demonstrate to skeptical engineers and marketing people that typefaces have performance characteristics. Helvetica does not perform as well as some other typefaces.

But there’s more. What the TTC is using is not real Helvetica or Helvetica Neue. It is actually Swiss 721, the Bitstream clone that comes with CorelDraw. Remember that report that the TTC ordered internally after I made my first presentation? Here is what that report said about Helvetica:

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.

How was fake Helvetica “chosen”? You tell me.

The most interesting point about the signs in the Sheppard subway is the fact that the man who developed them cannot now use them. Bob Brent was the manager in charge of marketing and communications at the time. For some illogical reason, signage is put in the category of marketing. He’s the one who carried out the dozen-person test of the Arial sign there in St. George with the bad g. Bob has been using a wheelchair or walker for the last year or so, and on two separate occasions he’s been at Sheppard station on the Sheppard line and has not been able to find his way out of the station. Twice, the man who organized, developed and managed the signage system has not been able to get out of his own station.

Now, the TTC did give us a little sop to the past in the Sheppard subway. The station designation on the train-wall side uses the aboriginal TTC font. But it’s not sandblasted into the living tile because they’re not using tile. It’s just plain concrete. That was done for budgetary reasons. I’m OK with it. It’s an honest material. They’re using stainless-steel plates instead, but they can’t get the spacing right, especially at Bayview station, which has the difficult-to-kern-under-the-best-of-circumstances combination of AYVI, right, which looks like crap there.

Actually, why don’t we see if we can zoom in a bit? Oop. Bit too much. Yeah, um –

That’s one – that’s one word, by the way.

It is one word, yes.

It is not, you know, the view of a bay. It is Bayview, right.

To conclude: Type in the Toronto subway is the 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.

Uh, photos used – by permission.

Now, if anyone has any questions on this mishmash, please do ask them.

Going once. Question from Tom Phinney.

You’ve got what you think are – seem to be some kind of original drawings. Do you have any interest in digitizing this? Do they have a digital version?

Ah, yes. I knew someone would ask that. That’s why I didn’t mention it, because I knew there would be a Q&A. There is a commercially available digitized version of this typeface called Toronto Subway Regular and Bold by David Vereschagin, who spent months going to different subway stations and putting tracing paper up on the walls and taking rubbings of the sandblasted letters.

So his caps are reasonably accurate, but there is no lowercase, so he had to manufacture one, and that is definitely not working. Toronto Subway is on MyFonts. You can find it pretty easily. Interestingly enough, Canada is sort of a Second World country in one respect in that typeface designs are not protected by copyright. So there is no legal prohibition for anyone to come along and design a new digitized Toronto subway typeface.

So I was thinking of holding some kind of competition with people. I can send people the scans of this quite easily, which I have permission to do. You could design your own caps and, most importantly, lower case for the Toronto subway – like an OpenType version of the Toronto subway font, on the proviso that you give a perpetual free licence to the TTC. Now, if anyone’s interested in doing that, please do contact me, because the existing digital version of Toronto Subway is not functional in mixed case.

Anyone else? OK, looks like we’re gonna end almost on time for lunch.

Thanks for coming.


Posted: 2007.12.03

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