Typographic Analysis of Signage on the R142 and R143 Subway Trains

Josh Nimoy Jan 28, 2004

A teacher at ITP, Masamichi Udagawa, and Sigi Moeslinger of Antenna Design were two of the designers of New York City's most recent subway train. On the outside are yellow and black LCD panels telling you in large 6-inch high letters, the train's identification and destination. Although this is LCD, the number of segments is well beyond 50, the alphabet having been custom-dissected into what looks like shattered stained glass texture. I am not able to verify that someone designed that typeface for the train itself; it's merely the first place I saw that component. The melamine walls of this train resist "scratchiti" and seat-end railings protect passengers from potential attack by people on the platform(1). Following that strictly functional design logic, I am met with confusion as to why so much effort was poured into crafting this custom display, or choosing it over more convenient or cheaper displays. The subway stations had already been using LED dot matrix ticker displays for their station. Why introduce inconsistency? In doing a visual comparison between this new LCD panel, those red 10-pixel high tickers, and the Helvetica font that New York metro uses for all its printed material, one discovers an answer concerned with legibility. This new LCD panel's letterforms are far more Helvetica-looking than those in the LED ticker. If Masamichi was able to argue for introducing the LCD panel, it was due to the legibility gained from shortening the likeness gap between two typefaces. The new LCD panel achieves being exotic - I have yet to see it any place else other than on the side of a train. And yet, its symbolic message is a conservative one. It is a visual step backwards from the blocky packed pixel lights; back to the comfort of a more print-looking typeface. One can also argue that all computer screens have a higher definition of pixels, hence they go even further back to the printed look. But the LCD panel is still more exotic in its existence, or is an exotic approach to creating curved forms. In defense to the "hi fi" argument of computer screens, the LCD segments of the subway train are physically curved forms in glass - the visual boundaries are created chemically. No matter how strong your magnifying glass, you will never see jagged stepping.

(1) - IDSA's IDEA2001, short article "New York City Transit R142A Subway Car: Silver, Transportation"