EXPIRED: 01/11/10 – Bob Noorda, 82, was oft quoted saying “don’t bore the public with mysterious designs.”
Noorda, a master of Modernist design, was one of the driving forces behind the NY Transit’s eventual use of its all too familiar signs and many credit him with designing the look and feel of our beloved Subway signage, but it’s not entirely so.
It was 1966 when the MTA commissioned Italy’s Vignelli firm to help unify their signs – a collection of odd sizes, shapes and typefaces from different eras.
Noorda spent days underground watching the ways commuters moved to figure out where signs should be placed long before they even started to think about typeface and treatments. He set about standardizing the type family to make sure that the signs were easy to read and understand; settling on black Helvetica on a white background.
Simple, right? Not for the MTA, who executed the designs and produced the signs in its own sign shop, and screwed it up.
The sign makers decided not to use Helvetica.
In the end, Noorda’s black-on-white designs were replaced by the MTA with white-on-black signage. Why? Well, the City stated that the white-on-black designs were easy to clean and didn’t get as dirty as Noorda’s original. So while Noorda’s may have been easier to read in a dimly lit subway stop, the MTA’s edits proved more durable, and today, the Akzidenz Grotesk font on a black background, often with a thin white line running through the top, symbolizes the city’s subway system.
It nearly killed Noorda. But he lived. ‘Til now. Noorda passed away in Milan, his adopted city, from complications from head trauma suffered from a fall in his studio.