Typography in the City: Public Service and Pizzazz

by Min Li Chan

New York is a city of opinionated typography — clear, bold and with a point of view. Amidst the vibrant urban cacophony, a keen eye scanning the skyline and baseline will inevitably land upon a feast of serifs or absence thereof, ascenders and descenders, leading and kerning.

A designer friend living in Brooklyn once mused that the flourishing of typography in New York is a function of the city's density of creative cohort, enticed by the possibility of communicative surfaces.

Typography in the city is branding at its most commercial, as well as wayfinding for the public good. It is most effective when cognizant of sightlines, legibility and relations with its surroundings.

How should visual access and intersecting sightlines affect typographic decisions? How does a designer find balance between artistry and legibility? Should the typography blend into its surroundings or should it stand out?

Polis readers, if you have examples of urban typography you'd like to share, we'd love to hear about (and see) them!

Credits: Photos by Min Li Chan.

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  1. I like the way two street lights appear to point directly to the Moran's sign, creating subtle sightlines.

    Some of my favorite typography in Moscow is from the 1920s and 1960s (the less bombastic and didactic the better). Examples are scattered around the city, sometimes on the walls of Metro stations. They're not usually very legible, but definitely beautiful pieces of cultural heritage.

    Here's a related comparison from a post by Marcus Benigno at URBANPHOTO: http://www.urbanphoto.net/blog/2012/01/21/typographical-record-reading-the-moscow-metro. I really like the top version, even though it's nowhere near as readable.

  2. one of my favorites http://tjout.tumblr.com/post/14214815112

  3. The sign for Radio City Music Hall is beautiful and legible.

  4. iconic like the 3-D HOLLYWOOD on the hill

  5. Thanks for sharing, everyone.

    @petersigrist: Older subway/transportation systems are indeed treasure troves of distinctive typography! Your example from Moscow reminds me of a few opinions voiced in the film "Helvetica": that modern typography has rendered signs too generic and safely legible, without a bold point of view. It is interesting that typeface can carry the gravitas and whimsy of cultural heritage -- perhaps our generation is one that posterity will remember for the flourishing of digital fonts, imagine if all physical signage were digitized and pixelized?

    Keep those examples coming!

  6. Tap tap buses in Haiti! http://bit.ly/I1A80V, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125350863

  7. Graffiti in general. It is interpreted as art, service, resistance, plague. Mostly about form but it has different functions. It appears in hidden corners and some of the most visible surfaces in the city. It is my typography. http://sfinbudapest.com/index.php?/archives/194-More-Random-Graffiti.html