Design Communications

NYC Subway Graphic Standards Manual
Becomes Kickstarter Sensation


More than four decades have gone by since acclaimed designers Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda of Unimark International were hired by the New York Transit Authority (now the MTA) to modernize and unify the look of the subway signage, which by Noorda’s own account “was a mess.” Cluttered with varied typefaces of different sizes and rendered on different materials from mosaic tile to a paper sign stuck to the wall, the old signage system confused more than aided travelers. In its place, Vignelli and Noorda developed a cohesive subway wayfinding system designed to promote intuitive understanding — so much so that they promised: “The passenger will be given information or directions only at the point of decision. Never before. Never after.” It did all that and more. The New York Transit Authority’s wayfinding system is still considered a masterpiece of clarity, logic, consistency, and elegant modernist design.

The accompanying 174-page Graphic Standards Manual was as brilliantly written and produced by Vignelli and Noorda. One day in 2013, two young designers at Pentagram – Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth – stumbled upon an original copy of the manual in the basement of Pentagram’s New York office. The pair found the manual so awesome that they wanted to share it with friends, so they created a dedicated website ( and posted scanned pages online. The site instantly went viral. Within 72 hours, more than a quarter million people visited the site. Although delighted, Reed and Smyth felt strongly that an on-screen viewing didn’t do justice to the beauty of the real Standards Manual. To truly appreciate it, they felt people should see it full size in print, and they set out to produce a book with an introduction by Vignelli protege and Pentagram partner Michael Bierut and an essay by New York Magazine’s Christopher Bonanos, author of “Instant: The Story of Polaroid”.

Finding a single publisher or underwriter for such a goal proved impossible. “Producing this type of a book is a huge risk for any publisher or organization,” Reed and Smyth explain. “It’s an oversized format that requires hand-sewn binding and the page count is rather high (364 pages to be exact). Printing a book like this without a guarantee of sales would be difficult for anyone to commit to. We did have interest from one publisher, but after a period of silence, we ultimately decided this is something we could probably do ourselves, with a little help, of course.” They decided to turn to Kickstarter, a crowd-funding platform for creative projects. Last month MTA gave them permission to reissue the Standards Manual, provided the reissue be available only for the 30-day period of the Kickstarter campaign. The Kickstarter appeal, which got underway on September 9 with the goal of raising $108,000, has already received $724,000 in pledges from more than 6,000 backers. Although Reed and Smyth say they saw “Kickstarter as a place that could help us organize our mission and give people a chance to support a project that they wanted to see happen,” they add “we never thought this project would get the amount of traction that it has, within and outside of the Kickstarter audience.” There are still nine days remaining on the Kickstarter campaign. Smyth says that the Standards Manual reissue will be printed using high-quality scans from the original. Every page will be included, printed only on the right hand page of the book—consistent with the single-sided page ring-binder format of the original. He adds, “When you consider these signs are relied on by millions of New Yorkers every single day, they are elevated to something more than just signs—they are a part of the voice of New York.”