Uptown App, for iPhones

Typefaces: Gotham, Mercury Text, Giant

Manhattan’s urban grid is a vaunted model of simplicity, a rectilinear plan of numbered streets intersecting numbered avenues. Never mind that West 4th Street crosses West 10th, that those walking from Fifth Avenue to Third Avenue will seldom encounter Fourth Avenue, and that “North” in the New York sense differs from conventional “North” to the tune of 29°. It’s this kind of accuracy, transparency and accountability that makes New York the perfect home for Wall Street.

A fixture of the corner of Broadway and Houston, where H&FJ makes its home, is a tourist population forever asking that question of the ages, “which way is uptown?” I can’t entirely blame them: in the math of the NYC grid, Houston is 0th Street, and local signs wickedly conceal the real names of avenues below fake labels that are designed specifically to ensnare tourists. (Watch the meter when you ask a taxi driver to take you anywhere on “Avenue of the Americas.”)

To the rescue comes our own Andy Clymer, whose joint interests in typography, programming, and human decency are combined in Uptown App, his new utility for the iPhone 3GS. Andy’s thoughtfully used some of our fonts on what’s actually a pretty handy app: because it uses the iPhone’s built-in magnetometer, it can give you a quick read on “uptown” in places where GPS signals and cellular networks are unavailable or slow to come online, like when stepping out of freezing cold subway stations. Compared to the inconvenience of frostbite, 99¢ is a genuine bargain. —JH

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 10

Harry Beck’s map of the London Underground is one of those seminal information graphics that has come to define an entire category. It must be as widely recognized as Mendeleev’s design for the periodic table of the elements; it’s surely been as influential, and as widely imitated and spoofed.

What makes both diagrams significant is that they bravely dispense with information traditionally thought to be crucial. Mendeleev described matter without any of its physical characteristics, which freed scientists to infer more significant information purely from the table itself. And Beck realized that the scale of a city was irrelevant to a commuter (as well as difficult to draw), so he bent the shape of Greater London to meet the needs of the map, in what’s technically called a cartogram.

Mark Ovenden’s Transit Maps of the World is a terrific and well-illustrated tour through the world that Beck created. It’s interesting to compare the choice of cartograms and equal-area maps in different cities, and at different times: Beck’s diagrammatic plan for the Paris Métro was rejected in favor of a beloved but impenetrable drawing, which is just the kind of Gallic gesture that has been confounding the English for centuries. The images in Ovenden’s book make it tempting to make inferences about the cultures behind the maps: the diagrams for Moscow, St. Petersburg and Nizhiny Novgorod have an undeniably Suprematist bent, and those for Beijing and Guangzhou look as if they could actually be the Simplified Chinese ideogram for “subway.” Closer to home, the map of Los Angeles looks likes an Anasazi petroglyph, and that of Washington, D.C. resembles nothing more than a pit of highly partisan snakes. —JH

A Living Fossil on the 1 Line

Photo: David W. Dunlap, The New York Times

Passing fancies in lettering often vanish without a trace, and no style has died a harder death than Art Nouveau. Even in its heyday, the style’s contributions to typography were slight: there were never many Art Nouveau typefaces, and the few eccentrics that have survived may owe something to a resurgence in the sixties, when their smoky and vegetal forms found favor among the psychedelic set. It was not typography but lettering in which Art Nouveau reached full flower — sometimes literally — famously in the posters of Alphonse Mucha, and the Paris Métro signs of Hector Guimard.

Parisians have guarded their Art Nouveau treasures well; New Yorkers less so. New York was no stranger to the style — two blocks south of our office is Ernest Flagg’s splendid Little Singer Building, and it was in the borough of Queens that Louis Comfort Tiffany established his factory — but lettering from the period has become scarce. This morning, David W. Dunlap writes in The New York Times of a new piece of lettering that has surfaced, in of all places, the uptown platform of the No. 1 subway line at Columbus Circle. A visit is yours for $2.

Dunlap’s article contains the full and fascinating story, including this irresistable opener: this lettered encaustic tile, specially created for the station, is somehow older than the trains themselves. —JH

You talkin’ to me?

Thankfully this was published after my cab ride back from the airport, after AIGA Denver:

“Whatever design changes befall the yellow taxi, in my mind they’ll forever have checker striping, double headlights, and a rate card posted on the front doors that’s quirkily lettered and reckoned in fractions of a mile. (But then, I also believe that ‘The Train to the Plane’ is still in operation, because its noisome jingle has never stopped playing in my head.)”

“It’s hard to argue with the principles behind the solution, but with so many different ideas at work it’s not surprising that the final form feels kind of unfinished. I do have to admire Smart Design for trying to introduce a form of lettering that evokes the old computer-printed hack licenses, since for me this is the defining typography of the backseat. But divorced from the puzzle of spending an entire ride trying to decipher a name like ‘rnprowit sj,’ I don’t know that everyone will get the connection. Perhaps they could have sealed the deal with ‘nyct axi,’ accompanied by a photo of someone who's clearly not the driver?”

That’s me, one of eight designers invited by The New York Times to critique the new NYC Taxi logo. (And I wonder why they don’t go to Brooklyn…) —JH

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