Transit Map Typefaces: Grotesque Sans (Part 1 of 4)
This series of posts is inspired by an anonymous poster, who requested some information on typography in transit map design.
Almost without exception*, modern transit maps use sans serif typefaces for their labelling. Sans serif literally translates to English as “without [a] serif”, and denotes that the typeface does not have serifs: those little nubs at the top and bottom of characters that can help the eye follow large amounts of text.
The practice of using sans serif typefaces in transit maps dates right back to Harry Beck’s first London Underground diagram (Johnston Sans) and even earlier. Today, a transit map that uses anything other than a sans serif typeface would just look “wrong” to our eyes, although there is still a huge and ever-increasing variety of fonts from which to choose.
Within the general category of sans serif typefaces, typographical designers define smaller subsets. Generally speaking, sans serif typefaces can be split into one of three categories: Grotesque (and the Neo-Grotesque fonts based on these early designs), Geometrical and Humanist. We’ll cover each of these in the first three parts of this series.
Of these, the “Grotesque” typefaces are the oldest, with some designs dating back to c. 1816. At the time, many thought the style of type extremely ugly and strange — the disparaging moniker “grotesque” stuck, right up to the present day.
The most famous of the (neo) grotesque typefaces is, of course, Helvetica. This almost ubiquitous font is — unsurprisingly — heavily used by transit maps, including those of Washington, DC and Boston. New York’s current subway map uses Helvetica Condensed.
Grotesque fonts are a good, safe choice for transit map design. The letterforms are clear and the x-height of the lower case letters is generally large, which aids legibility, even at smaller point sizes. The main problem is that they can sometimes feel a bit sterile: their simple, unstressed letter forms can make it hard for them to project any sort of personality onto the map. Helvetica suffers somewhat from overuse, but it is undoubtedly powerful when coupled with that clean, minimalist “Swiss” style of design that was so prevalent in the late 1960s/early 1970s.
Next: Geometric sans serif typefaces
* Of course, there’s always exceptions to rules, and we’ll cover those in Part 4!