11 Jan 2010 2:00 pm   //   Filed under: Brooklyn, Transit, Typography

Better fonts for a better New York

Sometimes I write posts for this blog, read them over, and then reject them because I think they’re too off-beat or boring. (That post about The Killers and Owl City almost didn’t make the cut.) Recently I wrote a draft of an essay about the signage in the new Flatbush Avenue Long Island Railroad terminal. After I wrote it, I decided it belonged in the round file. Deleted!

Then I got an e-mail from a reader named Amanda pointing out an error in one of my recent posts about subway signage. Based on a book I read, I have been calling the New York City Subway font Akzidenz-Grotesk. In fact, Akzidenz-Grotesk has been all-but-phased out in favor of a custom version of Helvetica. Some of the “buttons” (those colorful circles that represent the subway lines) are still set in Akzidenz-Grotesk, but most of the signage has been upgraded. Amanda even attached a graphic showing the difference between the two fonts…

Helvetica is on the top line and on the left button; Akzidenz-Grotesk on the bottom line and the right button. Note the differences in the cuts on the C and the e. Neat.

Anyway, this feedback convinced me that I’m not the only one who cares about subway signs. And so I dug up the blog post I had deleted earlier. Here it is:

* * * *

The Flatbush Avenue Long Island Railroad Station, under construction for most of the decade, has finally opened. Recently I walked through it on my way to run an errand (a few days before they opened the staircase, seen above). It looks mostly fine, and will plug a hole in the streetscape around the busy Atlantic Avenue intersection. But I have a bone to pick. They’re using the wrong font on the subway signs.

Do you see it? Compare the two sets of subway icons below (the top one from the new LIRR terminal, bottom from elsewhere in the same subway station). It’s very close, but the width of the letters, especially the M, is obviously incorrect on the new sign.

A logo set in the wrong font is like the Van Halen cover of “You Really Got Me,” the 1998 remake of Psycho, or Hunt’s ketchup. It’s not just off, it’s wrong. Even people who don’t care about fonts will register this typographic lapse somewhere in their subconscious. They’re being imprinted with a message: “There’s something chintzy about this train station.” Multiply that by 30,000 riders a day and it reflects poorly on mass transit, and poorly on Brooklyn.

Sadly, this lack of attention to detail is typical of the Brooklyn construction projects overseen by developer Bruce Ratner and his company Forest City. (The LIRR station is attached to Forest City’s Atlantic Terminal shopping mall). In concept, there’s nothing wrong with projects like the Atlantic Terminal, Atlantic Center, the Metrotech office complex, the Lowe’s in Gowanus, or even the proposed Atlantic Yards mega-development. (I don’t count myself among the neighborhood activists who oppose Atlantic Yards on principle.) Big buildings belong in the city, and the designs make sense on paper.

But when you go to any of these buildings, they aren’t enjoyable places to be. They feel half-assed. For example, anybody who’s ever walked down from Park Slope to the Lowe’s can tell you the building is obviously facing the wrong way. (The front doors face a fetid canal and a gravel factory, and the loading docks face the neighborhood.)

At other developments, like in the Atlantic Avenue malls, it’s harder to explain what’s wrong. If you live in Brooklyn, next time you go there, look around. Pedestrians’ eyes don’t seem to be focused on anything in particular. There’s no balance or sense of space. People get confused; no one walks with confidence. Take a few minutes and try to walk from Target to Pathmark through the indoor passageway. I can think of only one way to describe it: Habitrail.

Designs like this fail to respect the hard-core individualism of New Yorkers. They fall short of great New York shopping spaces such as Rockefeller Center, the Time Warner Center, or the gold standard, Grand Central Terminal.

All three of those places, by the way, use the proper font for their subway signs.