Transit Map Typefaces: Other Styles (Part 4 of 4)
To be honest, this is a pretty small category and I’m only including it for completeness’ sake.
Included in this category are san serif fonts that don’t fall into any of the three major categories, veering more towards the decorative or ornamental. Examples of this include the Madrid Metro’s severe, squared off typeface (that matches the aesthetics of the map almost perfectly), and the similar, but less successful, square font that was once used in Naples. Most famously of all, there’s also Lance Wyman’s custom font for the Mexico City Metro.
Use of an unusual typeface like these needs to be considered very carefully: while they can give your map its own unique look, they can also date very quickly as design trends and fashions change.
The last typeface I want to share with you is that rarest of beasts: a serif font. Of all the maps I’ve featured on Transit Maps, the Tyne & Wear Metro is the only one that has serifs used on the labels on the map itself. It helps that it’s a beautiful slab serif face, both designed by and named after the famous Margaret Calvert. If anyone can find another example of a serif font on a transit map, let me know!
Transit Map Typefaces: Humanist Sans (Part 3 of 4)
The third — and most diverse — category of sans serif typefaces is known as humanist sans. Compared to the grotesque and geometric categories, humanist sans typefaces almost calligraphic, with a natural variation in line weight and open characters that enhance legibility. With less “rules” to their construction, there’s a much greater variety of letter forms — meaning it’s easier to find a typeface that projects its own unique personality upon your map, which can be good to give that vital sense of “place” to your map and help it stand out from the crowd.
One of the most popular humanist sans serif fonts used in transit map design is Erik Spiekermann’s FF Meta — I’ve featured examples from Zurich, Vancouver BC and Rio de Janiero, which does some terrible things to a lovely typeface.
(You actually can’t go wrong with most of Spiekermann’s sans serif typefaces, as many of them were specifically designed for wayfinding or road signage.)
Adobe’s Myriad Pro is also used quite a lot: it has a lot of weights and widths, so it’s very versatile. Hong Kong’s MTR uses it, and I’ve used it pretty extensively in my own maps.
As well as these commercially available fonts, many transit agencies use their own custom typefaces that are humanist sans serif. The London Underground’s Johnston Sans is probably the most famous of these, although I see it as a geometric/humanist hybrid, rather than a true humanist sans. Other custom humanist sans include the Paris Metro’s Parisine, and the similarly named Brusseline for Brussels’ Metro system.
Next: Other typefaces!
Transit Map Typefaces: Geometric Sans (Part 2 of 4)
Geometric sans serif typefaces — as their name suggests — are based on geometrical shapes, especially circles for their “o”. Many of these typefaces have their roots in the 1920s and 1930s, and often reflect the Art Deco aesthetic of that period.
Of the three sans serif categories, this is my least favourite for use on transit maps. Their rigid reliance on geometry makes them a little inflexible in use, and because many of the characters are so wide, the x-height is almost always small. This contributes to that Art Deco feel, but doesn’t help legibility very much. In general, the condensed versions of geometric sans typefaces don’t match their standard variants very well, as the “perfect circle” of the round letterforms has to be sacrificed in order to achieve condensation.
Use of geometric sans serifs on transit maps include: Avant Garde Condensed on the Dallas DART map, Geometric 415 on the Maryland MTA map (actually works pretty well), Futura on Atlanta’s MARTA map, and Futura Condensed on this Freiburg im Breisgau map.
If you really need an Art Deco vibe to your map, then you could use a geometric sans, but I’d stay clear otherwise.
Next: Humanist sans serif — the big category!
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!
Happy Birthday Johnston and the London Underground
This week London sees the 150th anniversary of the London Underground. To commemorate the occasion a stream locomotive used in the 19th century made a journey through the modern tunnels of the Metropolitan line. See more on the BBC
It is also 100 years since its iconic typeface Johnston Sans was released as the the ‘Underground’ typeface. Dan Rhatigan, type director at Monotype and forthcoming interviewee of 8 Faces talks about Edward Johnston and the typeface here.
The structured, based on a calligraphic nib held at a 45 degree angle, is emphasised by Johnston’s diamond tittles shapes (the dots over the i and j), one of it’s most recognisable characteristics.
That drawing for the old London Underground roundel (or “bullseye” as they called it then) is just beautiful. I’m a little divided about Johnston Sans itself: while it’s a distinctive and integral part of the Underground’s identity, it’s not a very versatile font and is pretty wide, taking up a lot of space, even for something simple like station labels on the tube map.
Fantasy Map: FF Yoga and FF Yoga Sans Font Sample (2009)
Designed to showcase two new typeface families from the FontFont foundry, this “Metro map” looks quite spectacular at first glance, with some lovely colour combinations and design details. It’s only on closer inspection that you realise that it’s actually a superb piece of nonsense - nothing really makes any sense at all.
Most type - apart from the few major “stations” - is way too small to be useful, and the circled line designations are scattered randomly around, instead of being located at the end of routes. There’s also a faint grid at a very slight angle, which lines up with neither the orthogonal grid of the routes or the north pointer at the bottom left. And what do the thin white lines across the route lines mean? Even the station names themselves are a bit of a hodge-podge: many are named after Paris Métro stations, but there’s also a few famous people thrown in, and even a few basic French words here and there.
And yes, I realise how silly it is to nitpick an imaginary transit map created to showcase some shiny new typefaces, but - hey, that’s what I do.