The Legendary Manual That Dictates Every Detail of the NYC Subway

Amidst the stinky, human chaos of NYC's train system, we take the clarity of the MTA's signage for granted. But every minute detail of those signs was carefully laid out in 1970 by two young designers who created a rulebook for how to guide billions of people through the subway for decades to come.

It was called the Graphics Standards Manual, and it was produced for the MTA by Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda, two then-unknown designers who worked at Unimark International at the time. A recent New Yorker article about the golden age of corporate identities discussed their manual as one perfect example of the era—concise, utterly practical, and incredibly prescient.

It's unclear how many of these red-covered manuals are still around, but one copy was recently rediscovered by three young designers—Hamish Smyth, Niko Skourtis and Jesse Reed—who work at the NYC graphic design giant Pentagram. As Smyth told me this week, the manual was discovered entirely by accident, as two designers rooted around in Pentagram's basement looking for something else entirely.

"They were searching the basement for a tarpaulin to cover our outdoor foosball table when they stumbled upon the manual at the bottom of a staff locker under a bunch of old gym clothes," Smyth explained. "For graphic designers, this is like stumbling on a first edition Gutenberg Bible. Well, perhaps that is a bad analogy, because graphic designers would also have a hard time containing themselves over that."

The Legendary Manual That Dictates Every Detail of the NYC Subway

What they found was a perfectly preserved time capsule of an era when corporations were obsessed with establishing comprehensive graphic identities—think of Lufthansa, say, or even NASA. The MTA, too, became the focus of two immensely talented young designers, Vignelli and Noorda, who would go on to become legendary in their own rights.

Inside the manual, everything was intact. Even Pentagram's red stamp, applied decades ago:

The Legendary Manual That Dictates Every Detail of the NYC Subway

The yellowed pages contained an incredible treasure trove of information—beginning with the very basics of how information should be conveyed to the city's millions of riders.

This is a diagram of the information tree, which forms a basis for the iconic map. "The basic concept of this branching system is that the subway rider should be given only information at the point of decision. Never before. Never after," reads the legend.

The Legendary Manual That Dictates Every Detail of the NYC Subway

Think the placement of those instantly-recognizable signs are random? No. The designers specified every detail of how signage should be arranged in each station. In this spatial diagram, they show how signs should be positioned in a line diagram that's surprisingly beautiful, in and of itself:

The Legendary Manual That Dictates Every Detail of the NYC Subway

The Legendary Manual That Dictates Every Detail of the NYC Subway

The geometry of the arrow was also carefully diagrammed out for future designers:

The Legendary Manual That Dictates Every Detail of the NYC Subway

As well as exacting directions about how these signs should be built and hung on the platforms themselves—complete with a modern lady of the day for scale:

The Legendary Manual That Dictates Every Detail of the NYC Subway

The Legendary Manual That Dictates Every Detail of the NYC Subway

And, of course, the all-important (and ever-ignored) signs that tell everyone what not to do.

The Legendary Manual That Dictates Every Detail of the NYC Subway

How about the architectural details? Yep, those were within their prerogative, too. The duo had to plan for both modern, underground station entrances, as well as older elevated entranceways:

The Legendary Manual That Dictates Every Detail of the NYC Subway

The Legendary Manual That Dictates Every Detail of the NYC Subway

Maybe the most wonderful detail, though—the fireworks at the end of the show—are the colors specified within the book. Simple, legendary, and at least to me, oddly joyful.

The Legendary Manual That Dictates Every Detail of the NYC Subway

Smyth and his collaborators decided to put their discovery online.Today, it exists at the Standards Manual in its entirety. "After we found it, we guessed that other designers would be interested in seeing it," he says. "What we didn't guess was that normal people would be interested."

If the manual had been designed today, documents like this wouldn't exist. They'd be nested within dense file trees, stored in data centers in anonymous buildings in rural parts of the world, and accessed through individual computers. It's hard to imagine, in that sense, what artifacts of our era we'll leave behind for the young designers of 40 year in the future. No one ever discovered a digital style guide while snooping around a basement.

Still, this particular manual lives on. "We don't own it," Smyth adds, "but are the proud custodians." [Standards Manual]