Friday, April 23, 2010

The opening of the New York Subway and its impact on Graphic Design, Then & Now

The opening of the first underground subway system in New York in 1904 provided a variety of opportunities for the use of graphic design, and has become a lucrative area for the graphic design industry to work with today.


The creation of such a complex system required graphic design on many levels. The most immediate graphic design requirements were for the basic informational and directional signage. The station name tablets were composed of small tiles in both serif and sans serif roman capitals. Smaller directional signs were also made in mosaic tile in both serif and sans serif roman capitals.

Graphic design was also required to visually communicate the detailed coding of the subway lines and stations, and this has been updated by designers several times since then. The NY subway also required a level of corporate branding (ie. Logo design, token/ticket design and advertising and promotional materials).


Apart from the design of subway maps and signs, the area of the New York Subway that has arguably had the most significant impact on graphic design is advertising. Considering that commuters spend much of their time on the subway, this presents an ideal opportunity for companies to advertise their goods and services to a captured audience.

There are very few subway carriages and stations today that do not have some form of advertising plastered all over them. In fact, in the coming years the New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is announcing plans to cover just about every surface in the subway system with advertising.

The most ambitious attempt will be digital video ads that play short videos that move across the walls of subway tunnels while the trains are moving through. In addition to the digital ads, there will be more train, pole and surface wrapping with ads as well as large video spots on the walls of busy stations.

Link to New York Transit Museum’s podcast to Learn more about the art, architecture, and history of New York City's subway stations:

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