In late summer, I pitched a story to Eye, the graphic-design magazine for which I was permitted to write exactly once, on the typography of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). As such, it was kind of a precursor to my thinking about the Toronto Typographic Charter (TTC).

Eye editors have never understood anything electronic, particularly E-mail. You wouldn’t believe how crazy Rick Poynor sounded in electronic mail, a pattern he would revisit. Then again, I am biased, as I cannot stand Poynor.

Current editor John Walters claimed he didn’t receive my first E-mail because he wasn’t in the office. (He seems to have mistaken asynchronous electronic mail, which just sits there till you read it, with a 1970s telephone that rings in an empty office without an answering machine.) He turned this pitch down for reasons of “time and space,” as though it were a combined TV show and magazine. Eye, whose 2004 and 2005 issues I recently read in totum, is overrated and baffling.

Inscribed in the living tile

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) runs a 69-station subway line and a huge network of buses and streetcars. It boasts a singular typographic treasure in the form of the subway’s station names and original signage, which use an expressive mid-century sansserif font not found anywhere else.

Yet the TTC is almost unaware of the graphic history inscribed on its very walls, going so far as to specify new signage in Swiss 721 – not even Helvetica per se. In the ’90s, the TTC shelved a novel wayfinding system that was devised, at a reported cost of $400,000, by signage pioneer Paul Arthur. And while the New York and London subways have a substantial fan base that is supported by the transit authorities themselves, the most avid fandom in Toronto comes from a community activist magazine, which makes a killing selling pin-on lapel buttons showing subway names in that distinctive font.

That subway typeface – upper case only, bearing a resemblance to Bernhard Modern in its varying crossbar heights and Art Deco curves – never had a name until Toronto designer David Vereschagin set about designing a PostScript font, Toronto Subway Regular, in 2000. (The typeface didn’t even have a full character set until then, either. Ironically, rare letters loved by type designers were already available in station names, like two instances of Q.)

While the subway’s pastel-coloured tile walls have been described as the world’s biggest public washroom, the permanent fixture of the subway font still looks like a spot-on typographic choice 50 years later. It makes Vignelli’s Helvetica in the New York subway seem generic, which, in hindsight, it was and is.

While the earliest stations on the original Yonge St. subway line used the historic font, as did a later extension along Danforth Ave., a few stations were labelled in a mishmash of Helvetica and Univers. And that mishmash is only one manifestation of a complete absence of systematic design in the TTC. Within-station signage has used everything from Helvetica and Arial to Gill Sans (in Paul Arthur’s redesign). You can find Helvetica and Arial on ostensibly equivalent signs on different sides of the same platform, with Gill and the house font visible across the tracks. Collector booths at entrances can have up to 17 different signs in different formats (by my count, 13 is the average number). Some of those are handwritten by bored fare collectors tired of answering the same questions like “How much is a ticket?”

While Toronto subway signage triggers pangs of longing to local designers, who look at photos of Spiekermann’s Berlin subway or Porchez’s Paris redesign and sigh wistfully at opportunities lost, the system has suddenly developed a vocal fan base that coincides with a renaissance in interest in Toronto’s public space. Indeed, without the plainly-named Toronto Public Space Committee (TPSC), an activist group, the graphic uniqueness of the TTC would have remained almost unnoticed. TPSC spawned another organization that publishes Spacing, a well-designed magazine about Toronto public space; Spacing designer Matt Blackett is credited with originating the idea of selling lapel buttons featuring actual TTC subway-name logotypes as seen on station walls. A smash success for TPSC, with 60,000 sold, the buttons do such a good job of straddling the line between hipness and respectably that even Mayor David Miller wears a button (for his local station, High Park).

The Web, and specifically the photo-sharing site Flickr, have enabled a grassroots fan base to crystallize around the TPSC model. The phrases “every-station club” and “69-station club” (blog) have entered the lexicon as trainspotters armed with digicams prove they’ve visited every station in the system. A Spacing-sponsored exhibit showcased homegrown TTC-inspired paintings and photography and asked attendees to mark their home station on a board (I ticked Greenwood).

But why did it take an activist group to capitalize on the nostalgic design features of Toronto’s public infrastructure? Why didn’t the TTC itself come up with the idea? (The Commission does sell branded merchandise of the sweatshirts/baseball-cap variety, but with sales figures stuck in the $50,000 range, merchandising becomes a rounding error in the TTC’s $1.07 billion budget. And TPSC now plans to bid on TTC merchandising contracts.)

The TTC came to its senses and used its own subway font, ironically licensed from Vereschagin, on the new Sheppard Ave. subway line, which also features typographic artwork. But in-station signage there and elsewhere is still in Swiss 721. The Commission has had to recall signage in buses – twice – to correct a French-language misspelling on emergency exits. (Yet only 1.4% of Torontonians speak French.)

And with all those photographers glorifying the subway system for free under TTC bylaws allowing noncommercial photography, why do TTC security guards harass and detain some photographers? One shooter was forced to obtain a photo permit and had to have a phone chat with the chair of the TTC.

Typographically, Toronto is a curious place. It is situated in the only part of the world where one may become a registered graphic designer (under a law enacted by the Ontario government in 1996). While Toronto is a city that does some things better than anywhere else (e.g., multiculturalism without riots or strife), Toronto has always betrayed the Canadian-style inferiority complex in microcosm. What can the TTC learn from other historic transit systems – indeed like Berlin or Paris – whose redesigns honoured the existing typography while bringing signage and wayfinding to contemporary quality levels? Will the TTC capitalize on its unique typographic identity, or will that task continue to be left to young activists who wouldn’t drive a car even if they could afford one?

For this piece, I think an obvious idea is a good one: License a lot of the existing amateur photography for use in the magazine.


  • The Commission has come down hard on allegedly unauthorized reproductions of its subway map, a design that is nothing special to begin with; fantasy subway extensions and anagrammed versions received cease-and-desist letters or demands for design changes
  • The war against photography: Inside the ban on the general public’s taking pictures inside a public-transit system

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2006.11.16 17:45. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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