Tracing Ephemera

MTA token machine, used 1954-1975.

This essay was written for D-Crit’s “Researching Design” class by Steven Heller. Students are forbidden to use Google or any search engine in their research projects, and discover the joys of archives and libraries again. Starting today, I will be posting a weekly essay from my two years at D-Crit.

In a morning like any other morning, you might leave your apartment, walk two blocks to the subway, hope to find a seat in the crowded car and dodge standing passengers while getting out of the car into the station of your choice. The period of time you spend in the subway is uneventful. You read, listen to music, stare into space.

On that particular morning, I was staring into the void after checking out everybody’s shoes, when the PA announcer started trailing off the usual audio script. “Have a good day,” she said. “It’s Friday, almost the end of the week. Have yourself a good weekend, too. Don’t forget to take all of your belongings with you, and please mind the gap between the train and the platform”. This nice interlude woke me from my trance, and I noticed everybody on the train car was smiling.

“Even the conductors sometimes embellish the PA ads,” Doris Halle pointed out to me, over the telephone. According to Ms. Halle, formerly Chief of Corporate Design at the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the people that spend so much time underground in the New York City Subway, whether conductors, station agents or booth agents, find a way to make the subway system a little bit theirs, too. Whether a message written for the day on the station booth, or a sign posted on the platform columns indicating which way to go during a weekend traffic change, MTA staff adds on to the existing subway signage system, in complex, humorous, and whimsical ways.

These characteristics were first apparent to me when I looked at the token machines on display at the MTA Transit Museum. One of them stood out immediately. It was red and black, simple in its rectangular lines, and heavily customized during the period of 1954 to 1975, when it was in use. During this period, the fare amount increased four times, from 15 cents in 1954, to 35 cents in 1972, and several changes had been made to the amount that should be inserted in the machine. By adding tape, painting arrows or sticking hand-cut letters, the machine had evolved through time, becoming a hybrid object that told the story of the people that had customized it. The details were gritty and unkempt, but the additions had been done with care and some amount of logic. This was undoubtedly the product of the intense labor of some MTA employee.

Customized out of necessity, this token machine existed completely out of synch of the rest of the subway signage system. But when had the MTA staff first started intervening in the signage system? And had these interventions been consistent throughout time?

Arguably, all of the first signage for the New York City Subway was handmade. But the beautiful mosaics first used in the stations were the product of the team of architects Heins & LaFarge, not the IRT, BMT and IMT staff. The first of these staff interventions can be traced back to the 1930’s, when less important, but necessary, information, started to be hand painted onto station walls. Indications of where to change to reach different destinations, and of toilets, for example, where painted in blue and red paint, and when washed away by time, would simply be repainted on top of the old signs. Less permanent handmade signs would be displayed on easel boards, and washed away when not needed anymore.

By 1964-65, the handmade signs had jumped from the walls and easel boards to posters, and shared wall space with advertising. They were done by hand and were unique, or printed in small series and spread through a small number of stations. Because of this process and the general proliferation of signs, the stations shared no visual identity, and the subway system soon delved into visual chaos. During the 1964-65 World’s Fair, a range of handmade signs was made to inform passengers of how to reach the fairgrounds. Agent booths, on the other hand, were covered with miscellaneous messages in small print.

These add-ons, of course, were a reflection of the overall signage system, where enamel signs superimposed each other, sometimes sporting contradictory messages, creating more confusion with every step. In Print Magazine’s September/October 1965 issue, William Lansing Plumb pointed out that “today’s subway confronts the user with a profusion of ugly, haphazardly placed signs and other forms of communication.(…) It also confronts him with directions that are frequently confusing or contradictory, making it tiresomely difficult for him to get where he wants to go.” Mr. Plumb championed other subway systems like London’s or Milan’s, and urged the New York City subway to look at these examples, although, in its tripartite genesis, the New York City subway system was very different from either of them.

Mr. Plumb was also defending the modernist look that would inevitably invade the United States by design. His voice was one among the many in a strong wave of criticism towards the subway system. And shortly after that article, following a symposium about transportation networks and the failure of a signage implementation at Chrystie Street Station, the New York City Transit Authority, advised by MoMA, did hire Unimark. Bob Noorda and Massimo Vignelli’s studio had previously elaborated a study and a proposal in order to improve the subway system’s signage, but they were now to devise a Graphics Standards Manual, to be fully implemented in the subway system.

Put together in 1970, the manual was devised under the recently formed Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The MTA was a result of the fusion of the BMT, IRT and IMT, which facilitated matters for a joint visual identity of the system. But the renderings inside the graphics manual, although clean, beautiful and conceptually brilliant, were too utopian for the reality of the New York City subway.

Unimark’s optimism is understandable, seeing where they were coming from. One of Bob Noorda’s previous projects, the Milan Metro, was devised from scratch and implemented throughout from then on. In the case of the New York subway, and although the manual specified that “there must be no overlapping of old and new signs” and “all signs erected previous to this program should be removed”, the reality of the first wave of implementation was quite different. Stations shared both old and new signs, and the further away you got form the center of the city, the worse the situation got. And because the Transit Authority suffered from lack of funds at the time, the effort to install new signage was minimum from 1970 to at least 1975.

During this period of time, customized add-ons kept appearing regularly in all kinds of situations, despite the new signage system. Handmade posters in token booths, trash cans and exit gates were common, and photographs of the time – even MTA publicity shots – feature them prominently. In the MTA archive, it is possible to see token machine parts and a silkscreened, hand-drawn advertisement that were preserved from these years. Impossible to trace to specific authors, these pieces are constructed with care and share a gritty and amateur feel with the MTA token machine on display at the Transit Museum.

The token machine panel has endured five iterations, corresponding to the changes in fare during the period it was used. Using white tape and letters from unknown origins, MTA staff altered and custom-made a dollar sign and three letters. The silkscreen ad, on the other hand, can be dated to the winter of 1986, when the bull’s eye tokens were first introduced. The motifs and colors are completely divergent with the overall identity of the subway. And this is 1986, sixteen years after the graphics manual was first published.

It is important to state that most of this ad-hoc signage appears around and inside the station booth. The 1970’s bulletproof booth, still in use today, is a small, contained space, and since agents are usually confined to one station, they become vehicles for self-expression. In some booths, you can find laminated print-outs that will give you information about the fares or simply wish you a good day. Others will sport handwritten, hasty signage. But the MTA seems to welcome, or at least overlook, such manifestations. In a picture from the 1995 MTA Service Identity Manual, the station booth is presented in a full page spread. Inside it, printouts stick to the glass, sporting a clipart of a train. A thorough search in MTA Station Planning and Design Guidelines, however, proves to be fruitless. No mentions to best practices regarding add-ons to the subway signage system – curiously, it is also impossible to find stationery material in a list of all that there is to be found inside an agent’s booth. As with the pens and paper, everybody knows custom subway signage exists.

Today, after two economic booms since the late 80s, the subway signage system is more complete than it ever was. Still, things aren’t perfect and waves of public criticism occasionally surface, usually through advocate groups. Custom signage, too, thrives to this day, proposing diverse solutions to simple problems. Michael Hertz, who has worked extensively with the MTA, states that “while the MTA discourages ad hoc solutions to wayfinding problems, it is our belief that unfortunately overall responsibility for the enforcement of design standards is not located high enough in the administration for it to be made clear that these deviations from the standards will not be tolerated.” Massimo Vignelli, on the other hand, dismisses this trend as “just an honest and naive way to provide signs that have been missed by the designers or implementors.” Furthermore, he adds, “when a station signage has been planned carefully, with long lasting materials, there should be no need for ad hoc interventions by the attendants”.

The fundamental truth about wayfinding systems is that they are codifications of design guidelines. Inspired by a rationalism associated with modernism, some of them can’t and won’t admit ad hoc interventions. But with the passage of time, it has become clear that wayfinding systems have to be devised in order to grow and adapt. A contained, small space as an auditorium or school will change over time, as will hospitals, airports and subways. These sets of rules will need to evolve along with the spaces they are implemented in. Additionally, the passage of time will also dictate the evolution of the relationship between the people that inhabit the space and the wayfinding system. In fifty years of signage and wayfinding compendiums, every one of them has failed to contemplate the human interaction with the system after its implementation, and the very human reaction to sets of rules – breaking them.

In the case of the New York City subway, the add-ons to the signage system are humorous and human contributions to a flawed system. Endearing, like the customization of the Transit Museum’s token machine, or hastily produced, such as directions quickly devised during weekend traffic changes, they will always exist, either as a reaction to the rules or solving a problem overlooked by the system. Anonymous and ephemeral, these interventions should be studied and documented, and can contribute to the betterment of current and future wayfinding systems.

When asked about the ideal size of a wayfinding system, Doris Halle pointed out that “the world is a wayfinding system, and then it just goes down from there”. Be it in the world or inside the New York City subway, it is only human of us to try and find our way.

–May 1, 2010