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Bob Noorda, co-designer of NYC subway system's iconic look, dies at 82

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One of two graphic designers who gave the New York City subway system its iconic modernist design, Bob Noorda, died this month at age 82.

One of two graphic designers who gave the New York City subway system its iconic modernist design, Bob Noorda, died this month at age 82.

Together with partner Massimo Vignelli as firm Unimark International, Noorda implemented simplicity throughout the New York subway system in the 1960s, from the color-coded circular stamps to denote subway lines to the widely-used Helvetica typeface.

According to his obituary in The New York Times, Noorda spent days underground to map foot traffic in an effort to figure out where best to place signs in a subway station. His challenge: to rectify countless signs -- some made of just paper and tape -- with various typefaces in different sizes.

He originally planned to use white signs with black Helvetica letters, but the Metropolitan Transit Authority -- the company that runs the subway -- thought they would quickly get dirty.

It wasn't the first time Noorda ran into problems with the MTA:

Yet the project proved disappointing to the designers. The M.T.A. was responsible for executing the designs and producing the signs in its own sign shop, and Mr. Noorda’s directives were not always followed. The sign makers, for example, at first chose to use Standard Medium, a typeface from their own shop. “They did not want to invest in Helvetica,” Ms. Conradi wrote.

Helvetica, of course, is the famously simple sans-serif Swiss typeface so beloved by the design community that it now stars in its own documentary.

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Andrew Nusca

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Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure