30 May 2008 8:00 am   //   Filed under: Transit, Typography

Subway signage goes negative

Earlier this week, I was changing trains at the Chambers Street station (which is being renovated) and was shocked to see this brand new sign:

What th’—?!

You occasionally spot a really old MTA sign that has black lettering on white type (I think there are some tucked away in the vast Times Square station), but it’s rare. Practically all New York subway signs have a uniform design, and the type is always white on black. The signs look like this:

White on black subway sign

If you’re unfamiliar with our subway system, you’re probably thinking, “So what?” But these familiar details matter, and when something’s a little off, we want to know why.

Also, these signs are legendary in the design world. The signage scheme was created in 1966 by graphic designer Massimo Vignelli, using the font Akzidenz-Grotesk (a variation of Helvetica introduced to the subway system in 1958). According to Vignelli’s web site, he had originally intended the signs to be white with black lettering, but “To discourage graffiti, the surface was later changed from white to black.”

So… Why the sudden change back? [Update: New theory: White signs indicate temporary changes.]