The signs on the subway system? Helvetica. The hackneyed “I Heart NY” logo? American Typewriter.
New York has always been a city of bold-faced names, whether in newsprint or neon.
The city is loud, so the letters must be loud too — and instantly recognizable.
MetroFocus asked this “font-ain” of knowledge for a guided tour of the city’s most ubiquitous typefaces.
Click the images below for the story behind the fonts:
It’s Helvetica. Gotham is catching up, but Helvetica is still the most famous and ubiquitous typeface in New York City. Helvetica is Swiss, but it fits the bill everywhere from American Apparel to BMW.
A few years ago the type designer Cyrus Highsmith tried to spend a day without Helvetica and found it surprisingly tough. When he rose in the morning he found that most of his clothes had the typeface on their labels, and he had to leave a restaurant in Chinatown because of the menus. He obviously couldn’t take the subway.
Helvetica’s journey underground has been circuitous. Its use was first advocated in the 1960s by the influential designer Massimo Vignelli, but he would have to wait more than 20 years to see it happen. It was first introduced to traveling New Yorkers on the subway map in 1972, and in 1989 it took over on the signage. Before it, the station names and other subway branding was a hodgepodge of something called Standard Medium and several other fonts.
These are more logos than fonts. The Knicks logo is always in your face, with a look that says "the Knicks and basketball are inseparable, get used to it…" The kooky crooked K would look odd anywhere else.
The Mets and Yankees both use a custom copperplate-style script. They’re bold and consciously personal, and the Yankees design comes with a poignant personal history: Louis Comfort Tiffany (the son of the man who founded Tiffany & Co.) made the “Y–within-the-N” design as part of a medal for the first New York City policeman shot in the line of duty in the late 19th century. The Yankees adopted it in 1909. Like all great designs, it still looks fresh and dynamic.
Flickr/Terry Ballard, RMTip21, Keith Allison.
The guys who designed the Gotham font also made this -- a versatile update on a romantic and old-fashioned logo. Commissioned by Michael Bierut and the design kingpins at Pentagram, the hot type artists Tobias Frere-Jones and Jonathan Hoefler decided to get traditional with a twist.
So the font is called Jets Bold, and is inspired by letters used by the team 40 years ago. I like the collegiate feel of the NY, and the implicit motion of Jets -- that’s a lot of emotion in a compact design. As is the modern corporate way, the logo now adorns many aspects of the Jets empire, from signage to the website.
This is the big one, even on a little button. It seems to have been around forever, although it was only designed by Milton Glaser in the mid-1970s. It was originally commissioned to promote New York State, but it was the t-shirt vendor in New York City who really took it to heart.
The font is American Typewriter, which is often the font people go for when they’re frightened of fonts, because it reminds them of how things were before the computer pull-down menu. But its big clarity means you can’t miss it.
Flickr/When I Was a Bird.
This isn’t really a font, or at least not one you can name and put on your laptop. The neon doesn’t particularly reflect the 1930s art deco magnificence inside, although its red, white and blue opulence is striking for its vertical boldness, and it instantly became one of midtown’s most important visual landmarks; has any theatre outside 42nd Street ever helped navigate so many tourists? The closest matching modern font is probably Gotham, the font used ubiquitously by President Obama’s campaign team.
Wherever you go, there they are. The city’s street signs, in dull but clear mono-spaced capitals, predominantly white on green. They aren’t there for beauty or elegance, but to send you on your way without ruining your eyesight. So how can such a thing possibly cause controversy?
In September 2010, New York City’s Transportation Department announced that it would be replacing its old road signs in capital letters with new ones in the mixed-case (upper and lower) Clearview font. This would be a gradual process (the city replaces some 8,000 signs a year), taking until 2018, with a cost estimated at $27.6 million. The New York Post reported that residents were outraged, even though the new lettering would be marginally easier to read. And it may have another advantage: Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan hoped that the change could make for a kinder and friendlier city. That’s an awful lot of responsibility for an unassuming set of letters.
The shows come and go, but Playbill goes on forever. The magazine program has become as much of an institution as Broadway itself, and its font, always displayed black-on-yellow, has somehow resisted the common curse of the digital age –- the desire to modernize for the sake of it.
There is a font called Playbill in the Microsoft Word pull-down menu, but it is a far more coarse alphabet than the one we have here (more akin to Wild West "wanted" posters in fact). The Playbill theatre font, with its devilishly distinctive serifs, is a form of Latin Bold Condensed, popularized by a number of type foundries in the 1930s, with the wooden letters particularly rich and, er, characterful.
The first test for a classic masthead: can you recognize it from just one letter? You sure can here. Perhaps the most surprising thing about it, though, is that it really does go back to the birth of moveable type, and has its roots in Germany and England.
The masthead (strictly speaking a nameplate) began taking primitive with the first stirrings of the Gutenberg press in Mainz in the mid-15th century. This was designed to resemble the handwriting style of scribes, and has become known, with various tweaks through the centuries, as Blackletter, Textura, Fraktur and Old English Text.
Its heavy gothic mood implies traditionalism and steadfastness, and is a favorite for pilsner beers labels and heavy metal bands. The letters on top of the newspaper each morning are still arresting and ornately beautiful, and after more than 500 years we are still not tired of those dramatic variations of thin and thick lines, or the portcullis styling of those capitals.
MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, the Ford Foundation, Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Charlotte and David Ackert, Jody and John Arnhold, Betty and John Levin, and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation. Corporate funding is provided by Mutual of America.