My husband surprised me with a book the other day. The blurb on the jacket says it’s for “transit and type nerds alike.”

That’s him + me!

We’ve kept the book, Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story by Paul Shaw, on our coffee table and have been browsing through it all week. Tonight I came upon the chapter in which Unimark International was hired by the NYCTA to help simplify the chaotic subway system maps and signage of the 1960s. This section particularly interested me as it reminds me of today’s struggle between print and digital:

The TA was glad to have Unimark’s advice, but nothing more. They did not have enough money to pay Unimark to create a complete manual of design recommendations. … Instead they sought to carry out the proposals themselves using their in-house design shop. … “It had never occurred to us that they would carry out the proposals in their own shop,” Massimo Vignelli said a year later. … The whole clash between the “signpainters”—as Vignelli called them—of the Bergen Street Sign Shop and designers at Unimark reflected fundamentally different expectations between craftsmen and designers. The former were intent on making signs while the latter were interested in sign systems.

I want to avoid making too many parallels between that situation and today’s publishing situation, but it struck me how the similarities hit close to home. Am I a “signpainter” who resists change? Am I concentrating on the little picture (“signs” or “I want to keep designing print books!“) instead of considering the bigger picture (“sign systems” or “OK, I need to keep up with how readers want their books.“)?

Most days my answer is “No!“, but I still get sensitive when it’s suggested that we print designers are in trouble, that our print mindset can’t change enough learn code, that web designers are better positioned to become digital book designers… These things may all be true for some, but it’s also true there are print designers who are passionate about books and their readers, who are ready for the challenge, who enjoy learning new things, and whose knowledge of book structure and editorial design contribute to and enhance eBook design discussions today.

But enough of philosophizing. This book is lovely and filled with pictures of old and new signage, typography specs, and user experience. Time to get back to flipping through the pages and being a type nerd. And can I say that the paper the book is printed on is sublime, it smells amazing! … P.S. It appears this book is not available as on eBook, but its pictures would look amazing on an iPad.

click on the pictures to enlarge

apologies for the blurry photos | on a related note, that is good wine