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Type in the Toronto Subway
September 16, 2007 7:39 PM   Subscribe

Inscribed in the living tile: Type in the Toronto subway by Joe Clark

From the abstract:
The Toronto subway has a typographic heritage all its own, starting with a unique font. But, with renovation after renovation and after a series of new station additions, signage and wayfinding in the system are a total mess. The latest “standard” in Toronto subway signage uses fake Helvetica and is a clone of Massimo Vignelli’s work from 40 years ago.
posted by chunking express (62 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thorough!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:01 PM on September 16, 2007


Whoa. Now that's a specialist paper.
posted by Zinger at 8:04 PM on September 16, 2007


Great- now somebody explain the point of the Museum station.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 8:12 PM on September 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


I love the original TTC font, I'd use it all the time if I could download it from somewhere.
posted by Hildegarde at 8:13 PM on September 16, 2007


I love the original TTC font, I'd use it all the time if I could download it from somewhere.

Seconded. I'm gonna keep an eye on this thread just in case anyone finds the font anywhere.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:14 PM on September 16, 2007


> You might not expect something typographically unique to come out of Toronto, a B-tier city that stands in the shadow of A-tier cities even in the minds of some residents.

I already wanted to beat this guy up because he's a font nerd, but now he's just asking for it.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:16 PM on September 16, 2007 [2 favorites]


Metafilter's own Joe Clark, I think, right? He's really good at this sort of thing, making it very interesting in a boring sort of a way.
posted by jamesonandwater at 8:17 PM on September 16, 2007


I love the original font too, it was something that I found striking when I first came here. I think it sucks that they seem to be systematically eradicating it.
posted by SassHat at 8:19 PM on September 16, 2007


I'm gonna keep an eye on this thread just in case anyone finds the font anywhere.

The article mentions a font called "Toronto Subway", apparently created together a few years ago, but the lowercase was invented by the designer and the numerals look like they were copied straight from Futura. Then again I haven't noticed any pictures of the numerals in the TTC font, so it could be like that in the original.

Thanks for the article, very fascinating.
posted by tepidmonkey at 8:20 PM on September 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


Every time I'm there, I'm floored by the cleanliness of the whole thing. I reckon Clark didn't even need to wipe the signs down before photographing them. Try that in New York, pal.
posted by Kwantsar at 8:29 PM on September 16, 2007


I'm floored every time I hear someone else is floored by the cleanliness of the Toronto transit system.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:35 PM on September 16, 2007 [2 favorites]


This sort of thing is now typical in public and private spaces - desktop publishing has allowed non-professionals to design idiotic, inconsistent signage and wayfinding materials. Middle-managers and the useless parasitic old bureaucrats in government seem to produce nothing all day but sloppy dumbfuck Word documents and PowerPoint presentations. No one likes to gets bitched at by branding and consistency Nazis, but the alternative is having your product, your office, or your community look like a goddamned K-Mart.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:36 PM on September 16, 2007 [3 favorites]


Thanks, tepidmonkey!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:40 PM on September 16, 2007


This is a cool post, chunking express, thanks. I know a few transit fans, but I didn't know "transit fandom" was a named phenomenon. I was inspired to look up the links for the buttons and Transit Camp.

And the author's matter-of-fact tone, as he accumulates facts about what he calls "the signage problem," cracks me up:

Information architecture leaves a great deal to be desired, as does basic legibility of Helvetica.

It’s possible to find all of those signage types, and others, in a single station.
posted by salvia at 8:41 PM on September 16, 2007


Ah...I thought that name sounded familiar: Joe Clark's take on my (and his) 'hood.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:44 PM on September 16, 2007


The TTC's lack of attention to its signage was already highly frustrating, and then I got to the part about some of signs at the St. George station set in Arial, the fakest fake Helvetica that ever was.

This "fake Helvetica" phenomenon also appears to be present in Boston's subway system. A few weeks ago I took this picture of a weird Helvetica-esque typeface used in the Harvard station. On top of that, some of the newer T maps are set entirely in Arial, which is amateurish and ugly.

I know I'm a wimp for caring about stuff like this, but the fact is, subway systems are neat, and it's a shame when authorities blow their chances for what could be beautiful, thoughtful, well-designed wayfaring systems.
posted by tepidmonkey at 8:49 PM on September 16, 2007


Posting just in case... if anyone has any connections in the TTC, I'm trying to acquire a "street roll" from an older bus or streetcar line. You know, the roll that's in the front that ID's the destination? Yeah, one of those, please and thank you.
posted by dobbs at 8:54 PM on September 16, 2007


This was totally obsessive, and yet somehow cool and accessible. I love the old font.

Also, ethnomethodologist, Museum's handy if you live on Bloor east of Spadina, and you walk up Bloor, bored, and you get a coffee or something, and stare at the weird crystal thing, and then want to head down to King Street or something. I'm sure I did that at least once, anyway.

St. George's color-coded signs are absolutely great. Downsview is depressingly "modern", stale, and dead. The Bloor line as a whole is a treat to ride on, to be honest, I love the scenery and the different colour schemes and stations as you head out from downtown out to the west end of the system to hop on the Airport Express.

I miss Toronto so much. Moving back soon!
posted by blacklite at 9:00 PM on September 16, 2007


Metafilter's own Joe Clark, I think, right?

Indeed.

Joe's work is always enlightening and opinionated. His announcement earlier this year that he's abandoning web accessibility as one of his missions in life was disheartening. It's a sad statement about how much the web standards community has lost its way the last couple of years, even as more and more web designers and developers embrace standards.
posted by dw at 9:15 PM on September 16, 2007


Wow, this is really cool, thanks.
posted by equalpants at 9:24 PM on September 16, 2007


This is a cool post, chunking express, thanks. I know a few transit fans, but I didn't know "transit fandom" was a named phenomenon. I was inspired to look up the links for the buttons and Transit Camp.

Ah - if you want to see Toronto Transit Fandom in action, check out: http://ttcrider.ca/
posted by ManInSuit at 9:54 PM on September 16, 2007


I've always found the Toronto subway to be a great environment to mellow out when I'm on some sort of psychoactive substance. It's somehow soothing.
posted by tehloki at 10:48 PM on September 16, 2007


I appreciate the fact that MeFi likes my paper. Really!

There’s a lot more information at my TTC Signs site. Speaking notes from my presentation, a much more concise document, are coming in the next day or so. There will be a presentation in Toronto. And I’ll be updating the online version with small corrections.

DW, I retired from Web accessibility because (a) there was never any business in it for me and (b) it is being handled by the kinds of developers who attend the conference at which I announced that retirement.
posted by joeclark at 10:49 PM on September 16, 2007


A fascinating read. I like that, as with the typography and signage of the TTC itself, the paper's organization goes all over the place in a delightfully haphazard way.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:55 PM on September 16, 2007


Aww... the Paul Arthur signage redesign and the controversy that surrounded it is what initially sparked my interest in graphic design. (That, and the Lost Dog clip from Sesame Street.)

As a twelve-year-old navigation-obsessed commuter regularly using St. George Station (hello to chrominance and chuma) I saw both the old and new signs daily, and upon finding Robert Fulford's Toronto Life article on TTC wayfinding (bathroom reading at my mom's house), I began to view type and signage with a critical eye for legibility and clarity. Twelve years later, I evaluate these issues daily as a typesetter and experience designer.

I lived on Bedford in my first years of design school, and regularly exited under the orphaned St George pylon (typeset with no period). The signage has gotten scummy, and since new (inferior) signage was installed further down the platforms and across the system, I think it's time for it to be taken down and stored somewhere. Three signage standards in one station is a bit much.

I also had a relationship break up over a fight that started with my ex's stubborn declaration that Downsview came before the Scarborough RT – I clearly remember the poorly-placed stickers with an extra station on them that covered up the end of the Spadina line on all of the in-car maps. But that's another story...
posted by avocet at 11:02 PM on September 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


TTC attempts to solve the tricky problem of indicating “straight ahead” not by using those words but by using a fake-three-dimensional arrow with forced perspective.

On the forced perspective tip: my absolute favourite TTC poster of all time is the red "WE STAND BEHIND OUR TRANSIT EMPLOYEES" awareness campaign that went up shortly after a spate of operator assaults. To illustrate the Toronto Police and TTC Special Constables standing behind the TTC driver in support, they shrunk them down to 80% and placed them higher up on the page. Man, I wish I could find an image of that wonderful trainwreck!

Of note: the TTC's recent "Please don't charge the doors" and "Please remove your backpack" posters explicitly credit the MTA for the design and concept of the posters.

(goes back to finish reading the paper)
posted by avocet at 11:22 PM on September 16, 2007


Avocet, there are no fewer than four directional-signage types in St. George (aboriginal, Paul Arthur, 1990s “Helvetica,” Sheppard prototypes), plus innumerable internal signs like the ones alongside staircases. I could tell you exactly how many if the TTC had bothered to fund my numerical inventory project.

Blazecock: Sorry, no, my paper is quite logically ordered. But, you know, thanks.
posted by joeclark at 11:26 PM on September 16, 2007


What's the aboriginal signage you're referring to?
posted by avocet at 11:34 PM on September 16, 2007


The aboriginal TTC font. It doesn’t have a name.
posted by joeclark at 11:35 PM on September 16, 2007


I still can't get over the fact that not only does the font lack a name, no one even knows who designed it.
posted by tepidmonkey at 11:43 PM on September 16, 2007


I know, me too! Well, didn't the paper say "no one living"? That made it even more mysterious, almost sinister.
posted by salvia at 11:47 PM on September 16, 2007


Ah, misunderstood.

Anyone looking for further signage disasters should try adopting a cat from the Toronto Humane Society. Upon entering, the ceiling-mounted sign immediately ahead shows an up arrow alongside Cat Adoptions, indicating "forward" – incorrect, that's the vet clinic back there. A second sign, to your right as you come in the front doors, indicates with a second up arrow that cat adoptions are ahead that way – actually, that's where they used to be, last time I was there a few years ago. A volunteer told me to go upstairs, yet the stairs were nowhere in sight – after a few minutes of searching, we found the stairs immediately to the left of the main entrance, behind a door with a typed sign reading "Administrative Offices" taped to it. You can adopt a cat by following the only direction that isn't indicated as heading towards cat adoption.

It's pretty hilarious.
posted by avocet at 11:58 PM on September 16, 2007


Fascinating. And, to my mind, very Canadian (obsessively thorough, vaguely indignant, and relentlessly critical of Canadian institutions).
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 12:12 AM on September 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


wonderful link! thank you! this will make excellent airplane reading.

Artificie_Eternity: Torontonians are in-love and in-hate with TTC (their transportation authority) for all time. This is just one more example of how the city breathes - I don't think the rest of Canadians would show such thoroughness-.

But then again I'm an immigrant. :-)
posted by olya at 12:25 AM on September 17, 2007


HEATED SOFA
posted by Flashman at 1:12 AM on September 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


Damn. It was the free drugs that brought me to MetaFilter, but it's the damned good net finds like these that keep bringing me back.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:41 AM on September 17, 2007


Rad post, thanks chunking express.

Does anyone know where the TTC pins are sold/if they're sold anymore?
posted by radiocontrolled at 5:41 AM on September 17, 2007


The pins are sold by Spacing, which is an indie urban planning magazine about Toronto.
posted by chunking express at 6:04 AM on September 17, 2007


By Joe who?
posted by jonp72 at 6:10 AM on September 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


By Joe who?

Heh.

Seriously, Joe seems to be slightly insane to me as he goes so deep on such seemingly obscure topics (captioning vs subtitles). And he has a total "get offa my lawn!" attitude that comes across with typefaces and signage. But on the other hand, it's good to see someone passionate about the finer points of something as the devil is truly in the details.
posted by GuyZero at 6:24 AM on September 17, 2007


this is awesome
posted by bshort at 6:50 AM on September 17, 2007


Pure frustration. Functionally, it's near perfection. It could be the envy of the world. But then they go and do stupid shit like this.

Putting this signage on the TTC is like taking a dump on Pamela Anderson.
posted by Reggie Digest at 7:27 AM on September 17, 2007


(Although I don't really get all the mock-confusion about the Egyptian stuff. It's the Museum station. Duh. It's not some random non-sequitur.)
posted by Reggie Digest at 7:36 AM on September 17, 2007


Whoa, subway trains and typography?! My inner nerd just creamed his pants.
posted by exogenous at 7:58 AM on September 17, 2007


Nice - typographical nerdiness combined with transit nerdiness - that's double plus good!
posted by carter at 8:00 AM on September 17, 2007


Whoa ...
posted by carter at 8:00 AM on September 17, 2007


DW, I retired from Web accessibility because (a) there was never any business in it for me and (b) it is being handled by the kinds of developers who attend the conference at which I announced that retirement.

Yeah, well, you're still missed.
posted by dw at 8:07 AM on September 17, 2007


I love the font goodness and the T-dot goodness, but can't get past that line "Toronto, a B-tier city". I know we're not all that, but still... arg, frustration.

Joe, it's sad to see you've retired from web accessibility consulting - please don't tell me it's a complete retirement for web accessibility work, as you know we'll always need your abilities...
posted by rmm at 9:03 AM on September 17, 2007


I don't really get all the mock-confusion about the Egyptian stuff. It's the Museum station. Duh. It's not some random non-sequitur.

I think the problem from an aesthetic vantage is with the non-permanence/non-standardized way in which it was executed. Signage can span hundreds of years of subtle evolution, indeed become part of our collective consciousness ('ARBEIT MACHT FREI' for example). A picture/sculpture quickly dates the idea's conception, for better (1930s travel posters, anyone?) or for worse (too many examples to link to just one).

Then there are all the practical problems. For starters, cleaning is going to be a bitch, replacement will be a bitch, not to mention they're practically begging to be vandalized. I mean, they could have just commissioned a big mural or something for "Museum" and not kitsched the whole place up.

It doesn't have to be Olde Fashioned ™ to both look nice and be practically functional. The modern stainless steel cut-out station signs are a great example.

Finally, fucking Arial? What were they thinking?!
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:17 AM on September 17, 2007


The criticism of Museum is dead on. The station looks ridiculous, and will look completely out of place when compared to the rest of the system. The fact that no thought seems to have been put into how the station will function as an actual station is equally disappointing.

This essay is so good.
posted by chunking express at 10:29 AM on September 17, 2007


Finally, fucking Arial? What were they thinking?!

They weren't. That's the whole problem really.
posted by chunking express at 10:30 AM on September 17, 2007


Regarding the original subway font, I asked my friend who worked at the TTC if he ever used/saw the font, he replied:
Yes, I believe it's called TTC Station. But because the font only displays in caps, it shows up as TTC S□□□□□□ in Microsoft Word. Accessing the actual font from the font folder is a chore because we don't have access to the c: drive.
posted by chunking express at 10:58 AM on September 17, 2007


While Joe makes some interesting points about confusing signage and accessibility, I think most of his critique is still primarily aesthetic in nature, with an emphasis on lack of stylistic consistency.

This is perfectly valid, but for all of his points, Toronto is still miles ahead of a system like the one in Chicago. Aside from being filthy (I now know why visitors are always so impressed with the TTC), poorly managed, decrepit and potentially dangerous, there is almost a complete lack of signage in stations. Furthermore, what signage does exist is (in typical half-assed Chicago fashion) often nearly illegible and characterized by incomplete and even downright misleading information. God help you if you are a visitor to Chicago that doesn't know that "Howard" means "North."

This is one of the many reasons why I may soon be moving the fuck back to T.O.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:20 AM on September 17, 2007


Interesting post. I spent some time in Toronto, and I really miss it a lot. I remember riding the subway and checking out all the tiles and writing in the stations. Sigh, and to think I came this close to moving there...
posted by Eekacat at 12:13 PM on September 17, 2007


Oh, God, I miss Toronto. *How* I miss Toronto.

The city is a lot like the subway -- and the font -- bare-bones, utterly functional and without any style, yet oddly distinctive.

And you miss it when it's not there.

Thanks for the post -- the buttons came out the year I left and I haven't been able to figure out where to get them.
posted by jrochest at 2:49 PM on September 17, 2007


No style? Are sure you've got the right font? Look at that R!
posted by tepidmonkey at 5:50 PM on September 17, 2007


Let's not all go crazy. For sure, the transit system is great in Toronto, but let's not forget that nearly everything else there is god-awful.
posted by Reggie Digest at 10:22 AM on September 18, 2007


Toronto is awesome. Boooyah.
posted by chunking express at 10:38 AM on September 18, 2007


Reggie, I think you might have gotten that backwards.
posted by tehloki at 10:57 AM on September 18, 2007


Okay, admittedly, rush hour on the 401 is one of man's greatest accomplishments, and the architecture isn't so depressing that I've actually killed myself, and the Blob-like GTA sprawl hasn't gobbled up all of Ontario's arable land, and the undercurrent of racism is at least partially muffled by the cheers of "Look how diverse we are," and you can never really have too many billboards... Maybe you're right.
posted by Reggie Digest at 10:51 AM on September 19, 2007


I always thought the TTC font looked a lot like the Sesame Street letters. But that shows my frame of reference, doesn't it?
posted by operalass at 12:02 PM on September 19, 2007


A follow up from Joe Clark on advertising in the stations:
... a significant number of TTC riders thought station domination was ugly and wrong in the first place. TTC proposed placing advertising in exactly the locations that people thought it should never go.
posted by chunking express at 8:10 AM on September 21, 2007


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