Sunday, November 30, 2008

The (Mostly) True Story of Helvetica and the New York City Subway

The (Mostly) True Story of Helvetica and the New York City Subway: Voice: AIGA Journal of Design: Writing: AIGA
To answer those questions this essay explores several important histories: of the New York City subway system, transportation signage in the 1960s, Unimark International and, of course, Helvetica. These four strands are woven together, over nine pages, to tell a story that ultimately transcends the simple issue of Helvetica and the subway.
I'm really enjoying this (long!) story. It's a great web essay, very good use of the medium. Lots of detail photo examples and tons of links to explore. Excellent writing, too. And of course, it resonates with my background in design, typography, layout, printing and publishing.

What's that? You don't know about my publishing experience?

Excellent - that serves as a more than sufficient excuse to post autobiographical detail that no one was particularly asking about! That's the whole point of a blog, n'est-ce pas?

I worked several summers at my uncle Jon's educational software & publishing company. Some of the things I spent hot summer days doing included:
  • learning PageMaker and QuarkXPress from Steve
  • seeing how Joe operated the printing presses (yes, kids - real printing presses! with ink! and rollers!)
  • learning PC networking - VINES irrc, then AppleTalk - ("See, Dan, this computer is called a SERVER") from Sharon
  • learning how to use the other finishing machinery like the folding machine, paper trimmer (aka hydraulic guillotine - massive slicing power!) etc.
  • becoming a master of manual booklet layout and pagination. (Quick, there's 17 pages of main material, plus a 2 page index, a 1 page table of contents, and a title page. Which two pages from the main material face each other in the center of the 2-up, doublesided booklet? Aren't you glad computers do that for you now?)
  • owning the Xerox machine's control panel (I actually knew what every single option did and how to use each correctly the first time)
  • picking and boxing books for orders (mostly for school libraries and reading classes - 32 copies of Huck Finn. 3 of Red Badge of Courage. 17 of Pride and Prejudice.)
  • using the powered forklift to load the pallets of books we'd wrapped onto the truck. (This forklift/loading dock experience served me well at Future Shop - I always got out of detailing shelves because I'd be on 'truck duty'. As any 6-year-old will tell you, operating the forklift is a lot more fun than putting things away on shelves or hangers.)
  • Listening to some of my uncle's incredibly extensive and high quality jazz CD collection - with occasional commentary from Steve, himself a jazz trumpeter
Once I got to college, after spending some time with the folks from the college paper (This was during the great USENET alt.* ban, which I'll tell you about some other time) I got involved, first as a reporter covering the mundane stuff like student government meetings. Later I became layout editor -- following in the footsteps of someone who ended up being a major force in modern typography: Chank Diesel (website, blogs, fonts, free fonts)

Yes, he did the Taco Bell font! (It's really called Mister Frisky.)

My designs skills were, suffice to say, not even remotely in the same league.

However, I did have some Desktop Publishing skillz. At the time, they'd been using WordPerfect (the DOS version) to print text in columns, and separately print headlines, and then cut them all out and literally paste them up along with the photos. Those boards would be sent off to the printer, who'd do all the production and printing. I spec'd out a new lab full of fresh Macs (ooh, Quadras!) laser printers and even digital cameras. We moved to a computer-based workflow using DTP software and started producing full page printouts in-house. We still used plenty of Xactos, metal rulers and 3M Spray Mount.

Regardless of the tools used, there was always the craft of getting not just the font selection but even the kerning and leading just right. As a decided non-master, I studied it quite a bit. To this day I remain very appreciative of excellent typography.

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