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A typographical history of the Toronto subway system

Posted by Derek Flack / January 18, 2011

Toronto Subway typeface TTCA about a month ago I wrote a post on Jonathan Guy's TTC font posters, which I rather fortuitously discovered while searching through Flickr for something that I can no longer remember. Oddly, almost the exact same thing happened yesterday when I was trying to find historical images of the TTC on the website. Although I didn't locate the particular photo I was looking for, I did come across another poster devoted to typefaces on the TTC. What are the odds?

This one comes from Jose Ongpin and actually predates Guy's work. Upon finding this poster, I soon learned that it's actually a condensed version of a series of images uploaded to Flickr that represent the extensive research that Ongpin completed as part of a history of typography course at OCAD (not yet OCADU) in 2005-06. For the class, Ongpin created a timeline of the various typographical and tile styles employed in the subway system since it opened in 1954.

TTC typefaceThe original results of this research were reproduced in four separate pages, each of which were very popular (the first one has over 12,000 views). It appears, however, that it wasn't until about four years later that Ongpin put together the unified poster (in December 2009). This version, for whatever reason, didn't seem to attract much attention (so far as I can tell) and currently sits at 222 views.

That's a bit of a shame that I hope in some minor way to correct. Although not perhaps as aesthetically pleasing as Guy's poster of the 42 stations that still use the original subway font, there's something awfully cool about Ongpin's timeline. In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch that the two posters in question would make an ideal pair.

Take a look at the high resolution version of the poster here and for purchasing info go here.



p o'd / January 18, 2011 at 09:21 am
Its an enraging shame that the TTC doesn't bother to stick to their F'ING TYPE GUIDELINES and the system is littered with bullsh*t signage in the WRONG TYPEFACE

It pis*es me off every time I see a sign in Helvetica or Arial.

nick d replying to a comment from p o'd / January 18, 2011 at 09:30 am
Its an enraging shame that the TTC doesn't bother to stick to their F'ING SERVICE GUIDELINES and the system is littered with bullsh*t employees with the WRONG ATTITUDE

It pis*es me off every time I see a delay in Service or a Cancellation.

Marc / January 18, 2011 at 09:46 am
It would be really nice to have some consistency but I don't think it's their top priority. And although the type geek inside me cringes when I see Arial on ANYTHING I'd rather have cleaner and more reliable / frequent service.

Who is responsible for purchasing signage? Just make sure all new signs follow the guidelines and the incorrect ones will eventually be phased out without anyone raising a fuss about the cost of it.
p o'd replying to a comment from Marc / January 18, 2011 at 09:56 am
It's a story about signage and type.
I posted my opinion on that.
Notice I did not post an opinion on the price of tea in China.

Not having type consistency makes the ttc look bush league and unprofessional. I want it fixed.
toenails / January 18, 2011 at 09:59 am
I personally would like to see a montage of the handwritten signs on the TTC features here on BlogTO. Also - a showcase of graffitti, because I consider it to be art.
JoeParez replying to a comment from p o'd / January 18, 2011 at 10:04 am
I don't mean to be an ass, but it really bothers you that much?
It doesn't bother me at all, to be quite honest.

Yeah the 1978 - 1989 "mistakes" are quite ugly; but I like what they did for the Sheppard Line and hope they continue it into the York Region extension. But that's just my opinion, you can refute it all you want, but I'm not sure why it bothers you so much.

When I was in New York last October, I struggled to read the tiles that read the station name -- then you have that generic black and white signage that's posted on the structural steel members. IMO, looks worse than Toronto's barely visible font mistake.
DecypherSMC / January 18, 2011 at 10:15 am
Had a few classes with Jose back in OCAD.

He also rode the TTC for 24 hours straight for another project, hoping on various lines and buses.
jennifer / January 18, 2011 at 10:26 am
It bugs me too that they didn't keep the original font and tile design for ALL the stations. I get angry whenever I see Museum now....
p o'd replying to a comment from JoeParez / January 18, 2011 at 10:28 am
Yes it p's me off that much.

TTC is a giant organization that should have its shyte together.

daniel replying to a comment from p o'd / January 18, 2011 at 10:30 am
At least there not all comic sans.
AmyK / January 18, 2011 at 11:26 am
Haha daniel.

Count your blessings people!
John / January 18, 2011 at 11:42 am
I think the point of the posters is that the mish/mash of fonts and colours kinda looks cool when presented altogether. And I agree, it does.

However, from an art point of view, I think I like Jonathan Guy ones better.
Chris Moorehead / January 18, 2011 at 11:48 am
I was one of Jose's classmates at OCAD &, briefly at a later time, his instructor (he took a few years off school in between). He's definitely one of the best design minds I've ever taught. I actually used this particular work as primary research material for my undergraduate thesis.

I look forward to seeing great things from him in the future.
TTC Font / January 18, 2011 at 11:50 am
If you're interested, I found a site where you can purchase a faithful homage to the original TTC font. No, I'm not affiliated with the typographer but I think it's super rad that someone threw this together!

Bill replying to a comment from p o'd / January 18, 2011 at 12:22 pm
I'm with PO'D on this one. It's a gorgeous typeface and they really should be more consistent with its use.

Thanks for the article!
Joe Clark / January 18, 2011 at 12:38 pm
At some point, somebody here should really read my documentation on the subject, which includes Ongpin’s work.
Derek replying to a comment from Joe Clark / January 18, 2011 at 12:50 pm
We're familiar with your work, Joe -- but it's already been fairly widely written about and my last visit to your site revealed that it hasn't been updated for a while. Feel free to shoot us a note with whatever you're up to of late.
Greg replying to a comment from p o'd / January 18, 2011 at 02:03 pm
The world has too many problems, like this one.
Eric S. Smith replying to a comment from daniel / January 18, 2011 at 04:41 pm
Comic Sans? Wow, I just got a great idea that'll make the TTC seem more friendly and approachable!
Jose O / January 18, 2011 at 06:18 pm
Thanks to blogTO, Derek for picking this up again, I didn't think it would be such an interest for many. I will be printing a few for sale, $30 for a 24x36 print. I am making an 'alternate' version - that includes the renovations/alterations to the 11 original Yonge Subway lines. However, if you all prefer this one, I'll be more than happy to get that facilitated. Apologies I don't have a site going right now but you can give m a shout -
Jonathan Guy / January 18, 2011 at 07:56 pm
Great work Jose! And you've done some fantastic research too!
Mal / January 19, 2011 at 01:00 am
Joe Clark, an outspoken TTC critic and typophile, prepared a rather detailed history and inventory of type used by the TTC. He also used to conduct tours of the subway system to point out interesting typographic artifacts and inconsistencies. His paper "Inscribed in the living tile: Type in the Toronto subway:" can be found at
anonymous replying to a comment from Mal / January 19, 2011 at 01:06 am
This was my first thought too. How do you talk about what people have written on TTC signage without mentioning Joe Clark?
Yosef replying to a comment from anonymous / January 19, 2011 at 01:23 am
Here's a guess: no one wants to read the ramblings of a self-important font-nut. This doesn't read to me like it's about "what's been written about TTC signage" so much as a pointer to an interesting looking poster.
Adam Sobolak / January 19, 2011 at 07:13 am
As much as people loathe the non-subway-font usages, there's an argument that when it comes to the 1978 Spadina line stations, *imposing* the subway font would be more barbaric...
Eric S. Smith replying to a comment from Adam Sobolak / January 19, 2011 at 09:40 am
I think that for existing stations, there should be respect for the original design when it comes to renovations and new signage. So that's a "no," then, to the goofy decorations at Museum, but not a call to do something silly like remake the Spadina line in the image of Bloor–Danforth.

Using the subway font on new stations would be a great way to tie what one hopes would be new and interesting designs in to the system. Especially if the alternative is either whatever the default font is in Microsoft Outlook or a half-hearted attempt to copy another city's look.

I'd finish here by saying that the most important thing is that the signage be good, but then I'd really just be asking for a bad font choice *and* crummy signage that someone can pretend was their best effort.
Jose O / January 19, 2011 at 02:16 pm
Thanks Jonathan! I discovered your work through this post, very impressive esp the montage of tiles/type.

BTW for those who are interested - Finalized version can be seen
Adam Sobolak / January 19, 2011 at 07:31 pm
Oh, and re the post, one technical misstep: the B-D Spadina tiling only acquired its bus/subway silhouettes when the Spadina line (which connected here via moving sidewalk) opened in 1978.
Joe Clark / January 20, 2011 at 09:56 am
BlogTO: The alternate universe of people who don’t read Torontoist. I see you still attract trolls and allow defamatory comments.

José’s poster is new. The topic isn’t.
Derek replying to a comment from Joe Clark / January 20, 2011 at 10:44 am
I suspect many of our readers also visit Torontoist. And, for the record, there is nothing defamatory here. Perhaps you might want to revisit the comment thread on <a href="";>this post</a> if you want an example of troll-like comment behaviour (many of which, I'll note, were made by you).

No one said or even implied that the topic is new. So a bit of parting advice, if you're interested in us providing coverage of your work, send us an email and try to avoid comments like the one above.
Larry / January 22, 2011 at 01:12 am
Some of the original stations on the Yonge line (College, Dundas, King and Union, I believe) have tiles from the '70s or '80s and use Univers for the station typeface. Are the original tiles and typeface from the 1954 still under those or was it all removed and destroyed first?
Marc / January 23, 2011 at 11:58 pm
All of the stations today, should be uniform and should all be the 1954-1968 fonts and wall style.
Jose O replying to a comment from Larry / January 26, 2011 at 12:29 am
11 out of the 12 1954 Yonge Subway stations were renovated, of course I am not old enough to remember, but I did see an old CityPulse Rewind (remember those?) from the mid-1980s showing the Dundas Station renovation result (and the use of fluorescent lights biased enough to make the yellow more attractive than what it is now). It is unknown to me as to why from Rosedale to Union the typeface was Univers; I would assume that Union, with the same scheme as Kennedy/Kipling, was renovated in the early 1980s. It's fascinating though that Summerhill, St Clair, Bloor, and Wellesley have the bold version of the typeface. It is very rare to see original tile in any of these 11 stations; Queen still retains the blue Vitrolite trim and subway type.

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