Standards Manuals
For the coordination of a social culture
new york subway standards manual
Ph. © Sotheby’s
new york subway standards manual
Ph. © Sotheby’s
New York City Subway
Graphics Standards Manual


A crowdfunding campagin was launched in 2014 with the purpose to reprint the legendary New York City Subway’s Graphics Standards Manual.

Released in 1970 by the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA), the manual is a huge ring binder containing 176 pages that illustrate every element in the subway’s signage: from colours to typeface, from symbols to sign panels, up to every technical detail including hooks, screws, holes, flanges, and bolts.

Designed by Massimo Vignelli (1931-2014) and Bob Noorda (1927-2010), the manual was conceived to rationalise the production and installation of the countless signs that still help nearly 6 million passengers every day finding their way in New York’s underground.
new york subway standards manual
Ph. © Standards Manual
The success of the reprints

The goal of the crowdfunding was receiving $ 100,000 in order to reprint 1,000 copies, that were considered enough to satisfy the appetite of collectors. But in a few days, more than $ 800,000 were received from almost 7,000 people from all over the world, both professionals and enthusiasts, who gave their support.

The clamor caused by the figure attracted the attention of the media and the news was published in newspapers, blogs, and social networks. In a short time, the reprinting projects of old graphic manuals from 1960s and ’70s multiplied, generating a millionaire turnover.

Many people initially doubted the attention given to the reprints of these old relics, but the repetition of their success prompted to wonder about the reasons for this phenomenon, that was made even more curious by the fact that many of the buyers were not old nostalgics, but young people who had nothing to do with the context in which the manuals were originally produced.

Why did old technical manuals, forgotten by the same companies that commissioned them, still arouse such interest?
piaggio logo
A detail illustrating the technical drawing of the trademark from Piaggio’s corporate identity manual.

Ph. © Nicola-Matteo Munari
A visual imagery

The aura of mystery surrounding manuals is for sure one of the most fascinating aspects. Once inaccessible to externals because of strict corporate confidentiality rules, when you browse the pages of these old volumes you can enjoy an experience with an archaeological flavor.

By discovering all the secrets that standards manuals have kept for so long, they give shape and meaning to the images that have always populated our everyday life.

Standards manuals in fact contain all the instructions for the production of many among the images, objects, and spaces that we see and live every day — from packaging of products to uniforms of supermarket cashiers, from book covers to television titles, from airplane liveries to the architecture of service stations.
epa standards manual
Ph. © Standards Manuals
truman bob noorda unimark
Ph. © All rights reserved
Vocabulary and grammar

Standards manuals define every aspect of all the elements in the communication of both private and public companies, so that they can be more easily identified, distinct from competitors and, above all, associated with some specific values in the collective imaginary.

Through manuals, companies and public agencies are able to build their own identity in the public imaginary, an identity that is defined by a communicative language of which the manual is both vocabulary and grammar.

As Massimo Vignelli — who was a fervent supporter of standards manuals — once wrote , “the purpose of a manual is to teach people a language. When you design an identity for a company, you are really creating a language. And that language” in order to be understood and properly used, “has to be learned. (…) If you don’t learn the correct grammar and syntax, you won’t be able to speak the language”.*

 *From Manuals 1, Unit Editions, 2014.
benetton guidelines
The corporate identity guidelines
of Benetton, designed by Pentagram in 2011, after the manual designed
by Massimo Vignelli in 1996.

Ph. © Pentagram
Consistency of communications

Browsing the pages of standards manuals, we have the opportunity to learn those secret languages, discovering that the familiarity that we have with certain forms or colours is not random at all, but carefully studied and codified.

We learn, for example, that Benetton’s logo is always positioned along the right edge of advertisements, or that BMW’s slogans always end with a full stop, and that in Mercedes’s dealerships there is always the same temperature.

Such consistency and uniformity in the communication of companies — as well as such a varied and extensive conception of communication — may seem obvious today, but it was not obvious at all when the first manuals were designed.
organisationsbuch nsdap
Two illustrations from the Nazi Party Manual from 1936, illustrating military clothing for both adult and young men and women.

Ph. © All rights reserved
An archetype: the Organisationsbuch

Although standards manuals are commonly considered to have been introduced in the 1960s, the archetypes were actually made in 1930s. It’s manuals that are particularly representative of a typical 20th century’s rationality that was the expression of a world that was still strongly hierarchical, bureaucratic, and disciplined.

It’s not by chance that the first corporate identity programs were developed in the 1920s in the framework of the Prussian Germany’s Rationalisierung policy, and that only a few years later the first manuals were produced by the Nazi Party.

The Organisationsbuch der NSDAP, in particular, is one of the best-known examples thanks to the essays of American art director Steven Heller. Released in 1936 and updated every two years, the Organisationsbuch was a heavy volume made of over 600 pages, bound in a blood-red cloth.

Curated by official Robert Ley — the main promoter of the project for the people's car, the Volkswagen, who committed suicide while waiting to be tried in Nuremberg — the manual illustrates a multitude of emblems, coats of arms, badges, pennants, male and female military and sports uniforms, but also guns, swords, drums, and entire military camps.
london underground sign standards
Ph. © London Transport Museum
london underground sign standards
Ph. © London Transport Museum
british railways corporate identity manual
After the Sign Standards Manual
of 1948, British Rail issued a Corporate Identity Manual in 1965, that was reprinted in 2016.

Ph. © All rights reserved
The first manuals: Sign Standards

Both the Organisationsbuch — that was preceded in 1933 by a simpler manual titled ABC des Nationalsozialismus — and the fact that any change to the graphics of the party's identifying elements was reported in the periodical Reichsgesetzblatt, confirm the increasing awareness of institutions towards their public image — a condition that will prove to be typically modern with the spread of the mass media.

Among the first manuals ever produced, there are in fact those of two public companies: the Sign Standards Manual of the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) from 1938 and the homonymous manual published ten years later by the British Railways.

These English manuals, even more than the German ones, express the search for the standardisation that was typical of the Anglo-Saxon culture produced by the Industrial Revolution. Enriched with clear and understandable examples and illustrated in a similar way to the manuals created in the following decades, these English examples are still extraordinarily modern today.
josef müller-brockmann sbb
Ph. © Museum für Gestaltung / ZHdK
josef müller-brockmann sbb
Ph. © Museum für Gestaltung / ZHdK
munich 1972 otl aicher
The manual of Munich 1972 Olympic Games has also been recently reprinted.

Ph. © Niggli Verlag
The social role of standards manuals

The attention given by public companies to their own image is one of the most important and historically significant aspects in the history of graphics standards manuals.

It was no by coincidence that the design of corporate identity programs and that of standards manuals incredibly increased after World War II, during a historic moment that was permeated by the spirit of the post-war Reconstruction.

In this perspective, manuals are revealed as functional elements of this renewed sense of social responsibility that, in the field of visual communication, was expressed through the distribution and coordination of cultural identity elements.

And it’s precisely the social role that is so clear in the manuals from the 20th century, and their function as guarantors of an order that everyone could benefit from, what makes manuals so interesting, investing them with an almost epic aura.
tokyo 1964 design manual
Manuals of Olympic Games are instrumental in generating a
sense of belonging through
the coordination of identifying cultural elements.

Ph. © All rights reserved
Olivetti and IBM

Without considering a few cases dating back to the first half of the 20th century, the golden age of corporate identity broke out with the American expansion of Italian company Olivetti, whose design was unanimously considered to be the best in the world.

After the famous exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1952 — titled Olivetti: Design in Industry — and the opening of the historic showroom on the Fifth Avenue in 1954, the so called ‘Olivetti style’ became internationally acclaimed and the number of companies trying to emulate the success of Olivetti through the adoption of a corporate identity program multiplied.

One of the most interesting examples is that of the International Business Machines (IBM), whose corporate image was impeccably coordinated by graphic designer Peretz Rosenbaum — better known as Paul Rand (1914-1996) — who intentionally coordinated the identity of IBM starting from that of its competitor, Olivetti.
ibm graphic design guide
Pages from the IBM Graphic
Design Guide (1967-1987).
Originally designed by Paul Rand,
it was reprinted in 2018.

Ph. © Empire Editions
olivetti design industry moma
Catalogue cover of the exhibition Olivetti: Design in Industry,
Museum of Modern Art, 1952.

Ph. © MoMA
olivetti red books corporate identity manuals
The so called Red Books
(1971-1977), Olivetti’s legendary corporate identity manuals.

Ph. © All rights reserved
The great manuals of 1960s

During the 1960s, corporate identity programs gradually started to be matched by standards manuals and it was precisely with the spreading of manuals that graphics evolved from an artistic to a design discipline, becoming graphic design in all respects.

Browsing the pages of the beautiful manuals designed at that time for companies like Braun or Lufthansa and events like the Tokyo Olympics or the Expo 1967, we discover that the appearance of the most disparate objects was meticulously calibrated — from graphics of petrol pumps to key rings, from matchboxes to cutlery, from road signs, to shoe soles, up to space-shuttles and spacecrafts from the extraordinary NASA Graphics Standards Manual, designed in 1976 by Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn.
nasa graphics standards manual
A page from the extraordinary NASA Graphics Standards Manual illustrating spacecraft markings.

Ph. © Kind Company
nasa graphics standards manual
In 2015 the NASA Manual was reprinted thanks to a crowdfunding campaign launched by Standards Manual, who also reprinted the NYC Subway Manual.

Ph. © All rights reserved
Mega and mini manuals

Traditionally, printed manuals were made as huge ring binders in order to make possibile removing pages. In fact, beyond reporting the norms of corporate communication, the pages of manuals were used as matrixes for the photo-reproduction of graphics.

Ring binders also demonstrated to be extraordinary practical when updating the manuals, allowing both to add or remove pages when contents were modified, without reprinting the entire manual.

Because of their versatility, printed manuals were kept in use and updated for decades, demonstrating to be true long-lasting, sustainable objects. (There are manuals made of pages printed 25 years apart.)

Besides ring binders, there were also the so called mini-manuals, agile booklets that offered a more quick browsing. One of the most interesting of the mini-manuals was that of National Park Service (NPS). Designed by Massimo Vignelli in 1977, the manual was made of a single foldable poster, that allowed to rationalise the design and production of almost 30 millions printed matter published by NPS every year.
vignelli unigrid
The manual of US National Park Service was made of a single foldable poster illustrating the Unigrid, the grid used to structure all the printed matter of NPS.

1977 © Massimo Vignelli
Towards the ephemeral

The form of the manual remained unchanged until the 2000, when the first PDF manuals did appear, now replaced more and more often by web manuals — the so called brand centers, or brand centrals.

If one hand, these new forms of manuals have clear advantages, on the other hand they revealed to be extremely ephemeral. “It’s harder to take (a PDF manual) seriously, especially when it is labelled on the cover as Version 1.0 or Version 1.5. What’s the point of following this if it might just change next month?” (Armin Vit).

The ephemeral nature of the files push to continuously modify and substitute the manuals. In this way, contrary to what happened in the past, more than the development and evolution there is a continuous consumption and dismantling of manuals and identities.
pirelli brand book
The brand book designed for Pirelli the last one of a series started by Unimark/Centro Pirelli in 1980s and continued by Pierluigi Cerri.

Ph. © Nicola-Matteo Munari
pirelli brand book
Ph. © Nicola-Matteo Munari
For a culture of good design

For sure, this is one of the main differences between the present and the past, when the identities were designed to last and manuals were the main guarantor of their longevity.

The physical and aesthetic qualities themselves of the printed manuals are representative of such a long term vision. The tactile quality and material strength, the intelligence of texts, the clarity of the layout — without considering the majestic physical presence — not only determine the respect that one spontaneously feels towards these objects, but above all the pleasure in browsing through the pages, looking at the illustrations, and reading the texts.

And it’s precisely this pleasure which is the true reason of the success obtained by the reprints. A pleasure which is the result of that cultural approach towards the design that distinguishes the glorious manuals designed in the 20th century — true masterpieces and authentic expression of good design.
© Nicola-Matteo Munari

Originally written, January 2019
Published by Pretext, May 2019