This sign was printed around 1918. At the time, the New York City Subway system wasn’t quite established yet. Instead, three companies—one of which produced this sign—owned and operated their separate underground rail systems. This Interborough Rapid Transit Company sign was placed at the station entrance so that commuters could plan their trips. Unfortunately for the commuters, this sign likely provided confusion rather than clarity.
The monochromatic palette may appear simplistic, yet the congested layout is far from simplicity. Without different colors to identify distinct classes of elements, the viewer must take time to differentiate a terminus from a transfer, a line name from a station name, and even a company name from line direction (uptown or downtown). There doesn’t seem to be any attempt made at aligning the text in a meaningful way, as each row seems to be center-justified. Admittedly, the typeface itself is easy to read and aesthetically pleasing. Despite this, the sign’s cramped layout and unremarkable coloring undermine its effectiveness at informing commuters.
In contrast, this is an example of New York City’s modern day subway signage. It is the product of decades of design and redesign, with the aim of communicating transit information to commuters as efficiently and effortlessly as possible. The most striking aspect of the design is its simplicity. The amount of words is reduced to the bare minimum—the station name and brief instructions for handicap access. Each service line or transfer is denoted by a single letter and color, with similar lines coded in similar colors. This system provides enough detail to quickly identify service lines without cluttering the sign or preventing readability. Finally, the design is distinct enough to be recognized as a subway sign, even from afar. The streets of New York City are cluttered with signs for shops, restaurants, and stores. It doesn’t take long for commuters to associate the white on black signs with transit information because all signs adhere to the same design guideline. Thus, the entire system of subway signage works together to communicate transit information clearly and concisely.