We chat to the designers re-issuing New York City's design bible

24 September 2014

If you’re ever looking for a great reason why good graphic design is important, Pentagram partner Michael Bierut sums it up in this Kickstarter video. “New York City is a chaotic place and in the 1960s nowhere was more chaotic than the subway system,” he says. There was a “profusion of inconsistent signs” but “a lot of people were convinced that was the way it had to be; New York’s a complicated place, figure it out…”

Enter Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda, who were commissioned in 1966 to help make sense of the madness. Four years later they published the NYC Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual, a publication Michael describes as combining “Kindergarten clarity with enormous sophistication.”

Fast forward to 2012, and some of Michael’s team have a problem; the table football table on the roof is getting damaged in bad weather. “A few of us from team Bierut were rummaging in the basement of Pentagram to find a tarp that would cover our foosball table,” Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth explain. “One of the spots we checked as a last resort was an old gym locker that appeared full of dirty clothes and magazines. To our disbelief, we saw a corner of the red binder poking out from beneath a pile of random objects, and that was that.

“We took the binder upstairs and had a few-hour show and tell with our eyes open and jaws dropped.”

They’d stumbled across a long-forgotten copy of the Standards Manual and realised that other people might be as interested as them in the book. They signed an agreement with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to reprint it, and decided to offer it for just 30 days on crowdfunding site Kickstarter. The campaign launched on 10 September.

“Our goal, the minimum print run, was 1,000 books,” they said. “We expected we would scrape through and get just enough by the end of the 30-day campaign. We reached that before noon on the opening day and we were in shock!” At the time of writing the campaign had received $661,553 – more than five times its original goal – and there are still 17 days to go.

“We have been blown away by the reaction. I think this book captured people’s imaginations for two reasons. Firstly for many graphic designers this is an irresistible piece of modern design. Vignelli’s work in particular has come to be fetishised by the current young design generation (we’re the first to admit guilt).

“Secondly I think the book transcends the world of design nerds and fringes on popular culture. The fact that literally millions of New Yorkers read these signs every single day makes this part of the fabric of the city. And for many people who aren’t designers, it comes as quite a surprise when they find out there is an instruction book on how to design this system they use every day.”

"We think the book transcends the world of design nerds and fringes on popular culture. The fact that literally millions of New Yorkers read these signs every single day makes this part of the fabric of the city.

Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth

The 2014 version will be a 362 page affair with 180 colour plates. And although they are adding a foreword by Michael Bierut and an essay from designer writer Christopher Bonanos, Jesse and Hamish are keen to preserve the spirit of the original as much as possible.

“Our reissue won’t be editing or altering any of the content of the original manual. Every page will be scanned as is, and simply placed on the page as an image. The main difference is the binding. The original is in a five-ring binder, which was a practical solution to the problem of how to easily update the manual. Our reissue will be case bound and cloth-wrapped with the goal of creating an archival document, rather than a true facsimile of the original.

“This allows us to add a 12-page text section in the front of the book containing the foreword and the essay by New York Magazine’s Chris Bonanos. Both of these texts will be accompanied by historic images, documents, etc., and printed on a different paper stock from the manual reproduction.”

There’s still time to get your hands on a copy, and the guys have produced a website where you can peruse the book if a digital experience is enough. But it shouldn’t be, because when it comes to identifying the few books that deserve their place unquestionably in the pantheon of design greats, it’s hard not to make a case for Vignelli and Noorda.

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About the Author

Rob Alderson

Rob joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in July 2011 before becoming Editor-in-Chief and working across all editorial projects including itsnicethat.com, Printed Pages, Here and Nicer Tuesdays. Rob left It’s Nice That in June 2015.

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