How the Iconic Colors of the New York City Subway System Were Invented: See the 1930 Color Chart Created by Architect Squire J. Vickers

There may be no more wel­come sight to a New York­er than their own Pan­tone-col­ored cir­cle on an arriv­ing sub­way train. (Pro­vid­ed it’s also the right train num­ber or let­ter; is mak­ing local stops (or express stops); has not been rerout­ed due to track work, death or injury, etc.) The psy­cho­log­i­cal effect is not unlike a preschool­er spot­ting her bright­ly-col­ored cub­by at the end of a long day. There­in lies the com­fort­ing lovey—screen time, cli­mate con­trol, maybe a nap in a win­dow seat on the way home….

But as every New York­er also knows, the col­or-cod­ed sub­way sys­tem didn’t always have such a cheer­ful, Sesame Street-like look. Buried beneath the MTA’s mod­ern exte­ri­or, with those col­ored cir­cles adopt­ed piece­meal over the chaot­ic 1970s, is a much old­er system—three sys­tems, in fact—that had far less nav­i­ga­ble sig­nage. “The cur­rent New York sub­way sys­tem was formed in 1940,” writes Paul Shaw in a com­pre­hen­sive his­to­ry of sub­way sign fonts, “when the IRT (Inter­bor­ough Rapid Tran­sit), the BMT (Brook­lyn-Man­hat­tan Tran­sit) and the IND (Inde­pen­dent) lines were merged.”

The first two lines were built by the city and leased to pri­vate own­ers, with some ele­vat­ed sec­tions dat­ing all the way back to 1885. “The first ‘signs’ in the New York City sub­way sys­tem were cre­at­ed by Heins & LaFarge, archi­tects of the IRT,” who estab­lished the tra­di­tion of mosa­ic tiles on plat­form walls. The BMT “fol­lowed suit under Squire J. Vick­ers, who took over the archi­tec­tur­al duties in 1908.” The let­ter­ing and design of these tiled signs shift­ed, from 19th cen­tu­ry goth­ic styles to 20th cen­tu­ry art deco.

Image by Elvert Barnes, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

When con­struc­tion on the IND sys­tem began, Vick­ers, now archi­tect of the entire sys­tem and its lead design­er, cre­at­ed a col­or-cod­ing sys­tem to iden­ti­fy each sta­tion. (See the chart above from 1930.) “The col­or vari­a­tions with­in this sys­tem are sub­tle,” notes 6sqft. “Though they’re grouped by col­or fam­i­ly, i.e. the five pri­ma­ry col­ors, dif­fer­ent shades are used with­in those fam­i­lies. Col­or names are based on paint chips and Berol Pris­ma­col­or pen­cils. Red sta­tions include ‘Scar­let Red’ ‘Carmine Red’ and ‘Tus­can Red,’ just to name a few.” This lev­el of speci­fici­ty con­tin­ues through each of the pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary col­ors.

It’s not entire­ly clear why Vick­ers chose the col­or scheme he did. (See a sub­way map imag­ined with his col­or-cod­ing sys­tem, above, by design­er van­sh­nooken­raggen.) One the­o­ry is that the sys­tem was designed to help non-Eng­lish-speak­ing rid­ers nav­i­gate the trains, but “there isn’t any­thing that we were able to find that says defin­i­tive­ly ‘This is the rea­son why we are doing that,’” says New York Tran­sit Muse­um cura­tor Jodi Shapiro. The col­ors may have been cho­sen to stand out in arti­fi­cial light, she spec­u­lates, and “not look dingy and have some kind of cheer­ful effect…. Yel­low and blue are very nat­ur­al col­ors: yel­low like sun­light, green like grass, blue like water. I don’t think that’s an acci­dent.”

What­ev­er the rea­son­ing, the col­or-cod­ing did not sim­pli­fy sig­nage in the rapid­ly expand­ing sys­tem, which became incom­pre­hen­si­ble to rid­ers when all three sub­ways, and their dif­fer­ent, num­ber­ing, and let­ter­ing sys­tems, com­bined into an “unten­able mess of over­lap­ping sign sys­tems,” Shaw writes. Con­fu­sion reigned into the 1960s, when Bob Noor­da and Mas­si­mo Vignel­li, cre­ator of an icon­ic 1972 sub­way map, com­plet­ed “the Bible” of NYC tran­sit design, the New York City Tran­sit Author­i­ty Graph­ics Stan­dards Man­u­al. The new design­ers used “a rain­bow of 22 dif­fer­ent col­ors to assign to each sub­way line,” Untapped Cities writes, “and gave the routes new names.”

Col­ors were fur­ther sim­pli­fied in 1979 when John Tau­ranac and Michael Hertz designed the maps we know today. To solve the prob­lem of dif­fer­ent routes shar­ing the same col­ors, they assigned col­ors based on “trunk routes,” or the por­tion of the tracks that pass through Man­hat­tan. “All trains that share a trunk route are the same color”—a sys­tem that works beau­ti­ful­ly. And it only took eighty years to get there. The frus­tra­tion design­ers have felt over the decades can be neat­ly summed up in one word offered by Tau­ranac at a recent NYC sub­way map sym­po­sium: “Bas­ta!” Or in a New York Eng­lish, “Enough with all these col­ors already!”

via Untapped Cities/6sqft

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Design­er Mas­si­mo Vignel­li Revis­its and Defends His Icon­ic 1972 New York City Sub­way Map

A Sub­way Ride Through New York City: Watch Vin­tage Footage from 1905

Under­ci­ty: Explor­ing the Under­bel­ly of New York City

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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