Construct a Perfect Pentagon

On standards manuals

From the 1977 United States Environmental Protection Agency Graphic Standards System. Courtesy of Standards Manual.

New York City Transit Authority Graphic Standards Manual. Standards Manual, 2014.
1975 National Aeronautics and Space Administration Graphic Standards Manual. Standards Manual, 2015.
Official Symbol of the American Revolution Bicentennial: Guidelines for Authorized Usage; Official Graphics Standards Manual. Standards Manual, 2016.
1977 United States Environmental Protection Agency Graphic Standards System. Standards Manual, 2017.

Imagine it’s the turn of the millennium, and you have somehow learned that in fifteen years, a specialty press will have devoted itself to the meticulous reproduction of the internal graphic-design manuals produced by state and federal public agencies in the 1970s. These manuals have been reprinted in Italy on heavy glossy paper and bound between substantial boards, embossed, stamped, varnished, linen-covered, boxed, sleeved, and bagged in heavy card-stock enclosures and metallic foils. Thousands are sold at prices between $50 and, for a limited edition, $500 each. Imagine learning then that in less than a generation’s time, people will want to own and consult the internal technical rule books for these agencies’ signage, publications, plaques, insignia, typography, letterheads, and vehicle livery. What would you expect about the world to come?

Perhaps in this future world an increased investment in public institutions has prompted a collective curiosity about the history of their culture and graphic ephemera—particularly in how the design of that ephemera embodied the values of transparency, accountability, and community. Or perhaps this future world would look more like the one we now live in: one in which a calculated, self-fulfilling nihilism about the duty and capacity of a democratic republic to secure the common welfare of its people has incapacitated those agencies’ ability to carry out their missions. What would it mean, in that case, to retrieve and publicize some of the last documents those agencies produced before the advent, around 1980, of the long-term political strategy that set out to destroy them? Would the reprinted manuals suggest an attempt to recall and revive how those agencies once functioned, or only how they once looked?

A few years ago, Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth discovered their first manual in the Pentagram basement. Pentagram, where they worked at the time, is a New York design firm whose sterling reputation rests on the significant graphic and environmental work they did in the 1970s. The manual, bound in the kind of awkward ring binder you might remember from elementary school, was a rare surviving copy of the New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual: the original design for all the maps and signs and symbols (what architects and designers call wayfinding) for the Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York. Standards Manual, the publishing venture Reed and Smyth began alongside their design consultancy, Order, reissued the NYCTA manual in 2014. What followed, by way of a Kickstarter online fund-raiser, was seven thousand copies of a big square red book, thirteen and a half inches on its sides and more than an inch thick, weighing more than seven pounds. It has some 350 heavy matte pages, printed in CMYK ink plus nine Pantone spot colors with a stochastic screen for subtle gradation of tones and bound in hardcover with silk-screened white lettering on Italian cloth over heavy boards.

The first NYCTA manual was issued in 1970, when the city subway was not exactly what you would call a system. It was a patchwork collage of formerly private, competing, and often redundant lines, between which routes and transfers were counterintuitive and obscure. Rival private railways confused commuters with signs and doorways and other means—anecdotally, even on purpose—to divert them away from competing parallel lines. It’s possible that the NYCTA was redesigning the map at that moment because it could not redesign the territory: although the NYCTA was and is a New York State agency, the city was by then headed toward its dark age and its 1975 “Ford to City: Drop Dead” financial crisis.

This graphic redesign was the work of a firm called Unimark, presided over by late-mid-20th-century graphics maestro Massimo Vignelli, for whom Reed and Smyth’s boss at Pentagram, Michael Bierut, would later work. Vignelli designed things like the double-A logo for American Airlines in 1967, the blue oval logo for Ford in 1966, the once-ubiquitous “big brown bag” for Bloomingdales in 1973, and the still-used format for all the maps and guides and pamphlets at every National Park in America. Vignelli’s NYCTA redesign, developed with Bob Noorda, is remembered for what is now thought of as the failure of its map, which radically stylized and contorted the city’s geography to accommodate orderly forty-five-degree angles and squares, and rigorously—if laboriously—featured separate parallel lines for every adjacent express and local track (rather than the graphic shortcut used today of multiple insignia tagged to single color-coded lines that stand for multiple tracks). But all the insignia and colors persist, along with a somewhat degraded version of the once-meticulous typography—and still, above all, in the words of the manual, “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.”

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