The TTC is the keeper of a one-of-a-kind typographic treasure: the font used on the walls and old signs of most subway stations. Created from scratch in the 1950s with the launch of the subway system by a now-forgotten designer, the distinctive, unnamed, all-caps typeface features, among other things, near-perfectly circular forms on the O, Q, C and G; sharp points on the A, M, N, W and V; and a cute, almost cartoon-like R with an oversized round and a stubby little leg. This typeface has been the object of some amount of public attention recently, alongside the generalized TTC appreciation that’s sprung up in the Spacing magazine-led activist community. Not that the transit commission has done anything to preserve this heritage or to encourage enthusiasts.

“The TTC had a unique typographic legacy and, by accident or design, destroyed it,” writes Joe Clark in “Inscribed in the living tile: Type in the Toronto subway,” a 50-page research paper he presented earlier this month to the Association Typographique International conference in Brighton, UK, the source of the above font history. The Toronto blogger, accessibility consultant and typographic expert has recently been leading a campaign to address problems with TTC signage, as I reported here on July 12 (“Signs of dysfunction,” City – full disclosure: my reporting on the campaign is cited in several places in Clark’s report). “Inscribed in the living tile,” now available on his website at www.joeclark.org/atypi-ttc, comes complete with photographs and pages of references to make his case comprehensively: the TTC’s slapdash approach to signage has disregarded history, accessibility, functionality and consistency.

Various approaches to way-finding have usually been implemented piecemeal with no formal testing, and when testing has been carried out, it has been disregarded (in the case of a way-finding system tested at St. George station in the early ’90s, Clark reports that the discarded tests cost almost $400,000). Along the way, Clark outlines the previously untold history of the TTC font and other great bits of subway miscellany.

For the TTC, the report should be an alarm to wake them from their signage sleepwalking. But for the general Torontonian, it is worth a read for its well-documented historical accounts of the TTC’s growth and expansion, its blow-by-blow recaps of bureaucratic bungles past and present and, not least, for Clark’s entertainingly deadpan prose (“The Sheppard arrow probably functions adequately. The Paul Arthur arrow might have been used instead had the TTC not forgotten it existed”) as he documents in excruciating detail the way-finding mess of today’s TTC.

Originally published in Eye Weekly, September 20, 2007.

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