Barry Roseman: tricky type
Hidden Typography in Transportation Timetables
The need to consult complicated reference material has become an inescapable part of modern life. The timetable is one such reference. Since travel on public modes of transportation is, for most of us, a frequent activity, timetables are significant, providing information for a journey from origin to destination, often including additional information such as stops en route, transfer connections, distances and classes of service. Timetable design is also related to the design of other information sources such as financial listings, telephone directories, and dictionaries. Timetables fit into that category of ‘unnoticed’ typography alluded to by Emil Ruder, former teacher of typography at the Allgemeine Gewerbeschule Basel, in Switzerland, in the mid-20th century: ‘Typography belongs to the visual image of our time in a wider sense even than graphics. Its ‘period’ is so intrinsic and is taken so much for granted that its effect is not even noticed by the contemporary public.’
Because they are used routinely in everyday life, timetables have often been overlooked by academic or design historians. Nineteenth and twentieth century timetables reveal surprising content and innovative design that have been sparsely documented. A close examination of timetable content can reveal details about social issues of the period, political and commercial alliances between countries, and travel patterns.
One British railway historian analyzed railway schedules in the context of social patterns and habits. This was Jack Simmons, former history professor at the University of Leicester, an important centre for transport studies. Professor Simmons examined the Sunday train schedules in the famous British railway timetable, Bradshaw’s Guide, at various locations in Britain. In England and Wales, nearly a quarter of the railway system did not operate on Sundays, and in Scotland the figure was almost 60 per cent. But train services in Ireland, especially suburban services in and out of Dublin and Cork, continued on Sundays: ‘Forty-two trains ran from Dublin to Bray on weekdays in 1914, and as many as 35 on Sundays,’ found Jack Simmons. There were eleven trains on Sunday from Cork to Blarney, compared to six on weekdays. According to Simmons, the columns of the timetable indicate ‘two wholly different attitudes towards Sunday recreation: benevolent in Catholic districts, restrictive and grudging wherever Protestantism prevailed.’ The frequency of Sunday train services in and around Dublin and Cork in 1914 certainly could not be found around Belfast.
Other curious social patterns can be found in the inconspicuous typography of timetables. The United Airlines timetable of 1956 lists men-only flights at peak hours of travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles and from New York to Chicago. I imagine that the airline wanted to reserve seats for the businessmen who were its most profitable customers. It continued to operate flights for men only up to 1968.
The routes themselves may even indicate significant mercantile and political alliances between countries or regions. Extensive flight schedules to Curaçao and Jakarta are found in the timetables for the Dutch carrier KLM. Even more interesting is the development of routes along the North African coastline by the American carrier Trans World Airlines (TWA) in the fifties and sixties. As late as 1968, some TWA flights from the US to Madrid continued once or twice weekly to Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, and the airline expressed interest in serving Benghazi. Obviously the United States had business and political interests in this area. From the Second World War until 1956, American-North African relations could be summed up in three words: businessmen, bases and nationalism. American aid to Tunisia in 1962 was greater than that to any other African country. Several American oil companies, such as Esso, Mobil and Occidental Petroleum, had oil interests in Libya. At the present time, no American airline flies to Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria or Libya.
Timetables from the past indicate seemingly curious travel patterns and routings that make sense when other factors are considered. In the late sixties, Anchorage in Alaska had an exceptional number of flights to and from Europe for such a remote and small city, including non-stop flights to Paris, Hamburg, London, and Copenhagen. Flights from Europe to Japan were not allowed across Soviet airspace at that time, and the polar route via Anchorage was faster than the southern route via the Middle East and India. The opening of an international airway across Siberia allowed several western European airlines in the early seventies to fly a faster route via Moscow, signalling a change of Soviet policy. Since the end of the Cold War and the increase in long-range capability of today’s aircraft, Anchorage is no longer the important stop it used to be.
A different aspect of hidden typography in timetables is that of graphic and information design. A historical survey of this uncovers a spectrum of design issues, ranging from various designations of time to the development of new typefaces for better legibility. Innovative timetable design has not been well documented in academic design history. According to Emil Ruder, well-designed printed matter that modestly serves its purpose without artistic ambitions possesses a technical and aesthetic beauty often not recognized: ‘The anonymous designers of such material have unwittingly created genuine period documents, which owe their beauty to their functional character… The clear functional arrangement of a table does not conflict with typographical beauty. On the contrary: there is a great deal of formal and technical elegance in the ordering of so many small elements. The most modest timetable is often superior to a flamboyant colour job in this sense.’
The arrangement of typographic elements in a timetable, often in only two colours and sometimes only in black, has generated little design recognition. But timetable design requires typographic skill, visual sensitivity and creative problem solving.
The most significant and basic visual issue in timetable design is how information is presented. Schedule information has been presented visually in four ways — text, tables, graphs and maps — and a diversity of solutions exist for each category.
In Britain, the schedules of many stagecoach and early railway routes were published as handbills, and many from the nineteenth century reflect eclectic British design styles, combining Egyptian (slab serif) faces with fat face types (extra-bold versions of Bodoni) in various sizes. The timetable as we know it, using numerical time designation arranged in tabular columns, evolved with the first passenger railways in England and is credited by historians to George Bradshaw, a Manchester map engraver. Bradshaw formulated the Manchester and Leeds Railway timetable in 1839. The time for each journey is read horizontally, a concept difficult to decipher at first glance, since the vertical rules give the impression that the times should be read vertically. The separation of hours from minutes is an important consideration in timetable design, and Bradshaw solved this well by creating a generous space between the two.
As transportation systems grew, offering connections and a variety of services, the problem of arranging arrival and departure information, along with other details of a journey, became more challenging. Bradshaw established a lucrative timetable publishing business, as his railway guides were eventually issued monthly. The format of these timetables made use of vertical listings of destinations and corresponding times, influencing the design of many of today’s timetables. One page of Bradshaw’s Guide of 1852 traces the paths of twelve train journeys with forty-four stops, including mileage and fare data, in a mere 25 square inches, a remarkable concentration of information. However, the bold slab serif type is extremely heavy and makes for a congested page. With notes running sideways, it should not be surprising that ‘Bradshaw’ in the early Victorian age became synonymous with incomprehensibility.
Other timetables published during this period improved on the Bradshaw guide visually, and organized the information in a streamlined manner. For example, the tables in Murray’s Railway Hand-book of September 1850 have an understated elegance, because only one weight of type is used. The train routes from Edinburgh, for example, are divided into separate sections, arranged in an alphabetical order according to destination.
The idea of providing information only relevant to a specific origin-to-destination journey was further developed and visualized in Kelly’s Railway Guide for January 1859, an extraordinary timetable for many reasons. The Kelly guide is organized according to destinations set in a bold sans-serif type. Sans-serif type first appeared in England in 1816 as a display face for use in advertising, but was rarely used in the 19th century. Old style figures usually do not work well in a lengthy tabular arrangement, but they are acceptable here because the column depths are not long. The timetable’s design is unique for its elegant combination of serif and sans-serif typefaces and spatial sensibility, unusual for the period. The streamlining of information in a directory of destinations signals the beginning of the quick-reference schedule.
The innovation of the quick-reference schedule was never embraced by the railway industry, generally speaking, because most railway routes involved many stops. These journeys were similar to stories with lots of detail, and the vertically-reading format pioneered by Bradshaw was a practical, graphic way to tell the story. In the United States, the traditional vertically-reading format can be found in many airline timetables of the late sixties, as many transcontinental flights had numerous stops. However, the quick-reference format in timetables eventually became the standard. Finding information was often a tedious task in a traditional vertically-reading timetable, and it became obsolete for the American airline industry by the mid-seventies. As the Boeing 707 provided a faster way of travel, the quick-reference schedule satisfied the need of a new ‘on-the-go’ American traveller to find information quicker.
Timetables became the most popular and practical means of communicating the times and other information associated with journeys, but are not the only means of presenting this information visually. An alternative and innovative way of visualizing a transportation schedule is by graphing; a fine example is EJ Marey’s 1885 train schedule for the Paris to Lyon route. Time is located along the horizontal axis while destinations are plotted along the vertical axis according to a scale of distance. The speed of the trains is related to the slope of the lines; the more vertical the line, the faster the train. The graph also indicates where two trains pass each other on a track, information that a conventional timetable would not provide. Graphs are used primarily for internal use within railway companies; few of them have been for public use.
The designation of time, including the numerical separation of hours from minutes and the distinguishing of morning from afternoon and evening, has been an important consideration in timetable design. British timetables printed as handbills for early railways in the nineteenth century often used fractions and numerals to designate time, for example, ‘1/2 past 9’. Several Swiss timetables at the beginning of the twentieth century distinguished evening hours from daylight ones by setting the minute numerals in superior figures with an underscore. In some timetables of the late nineteenth century, times after midday were designated in bold type. In the British publication The Green Line Guides and Timetable of 1937, only the hour figures are set in bold to designate afternoon hours. The designer, Harry Carter, also designed a new set of Times Roman superior numerals for the designation of minutes. The numerals had to be small enough to distinguish themselves from the hour figures but as big as possible for legibility. The use of 24-hour clock time designation solved the graphic problem of distinguishing morning times from afternoon in the early twentieth century; however, this time designation system is generally not used in the United States except in the military.
The gradual adoption of sans-serif typefaces for timetable typography in the first half of the twentieth century, particularly after Eric Gill’s Gill Sans was issued, created a new, attractive aesthetic. The combination of light and bold weights of sans-serif typefaces provided less cluttered possibilities in varying the typographic texture of the page than the use of slab serif and other serif typefaces. This is evident in the elegant pages of the KLM timetable of 1950, using light and bold Gill Sans.
A European design aesthetic influenced many well-designed timetables in the mid-twentieth century. Graphic design trends developed in Switzerland and Germany in the fifties and sixties were eventually adopted in the United States, and had a profound influence on corporate identity for transport companies. These trends often included simplicity in logo design, based on geometric rationality and an extreme reduction of form. The timetable, a high profile and important publication for most transport companies, was an important application of corporate identity. Swiss and German typographic trends, using strict grid structures and the new sans-serif typefaces designed in the fifties, Univers and Helvetica, were incorporated in the design of timetables. According to Philip Meggs, the graphic design historian, ‘the initiators of this movement believed sans-serif typography expresses the spirit of a progressive age and that mathematical grids are the most legible and harmonious means for structuring information.’
The American Airlines timetable format of the late sixties demonstrated a new level of design excellence through generous spacing, sans-serif type set at legible sizes, and an effective use of colour. It was part of its new visual identity, designed by Unimark International. The influence of the ‘International Typographic Style’ can also be seen in England during this period, in the British European Airways (BEA) timetables of the late sixties. A striking corporate identity for BEA had been designed by Henrion Design Associates.
Many timetables designed for Canadian transit bus systems by the design firm Gottschalk+Ash also demonstrate this design aesthetic. These timetables are visually different from air or rail timetables, because bus schedules often present different design problems. Buses usually operate on a repetitive time sequence and often make the same stops along a route. The austere timetable design for Oakville (Ontario) Transit in 1972 solves the informational problems of a bus schedule effectively, especially the separation of a.m. from p.m. departures.
This was a period when many corporations were embracing modern design and had generous budgets for implementation. The Continental Airlines timetables of 1969, designed by Saul Bass & Associates, were also attractive and innovative. The schedules were organized by destination (rather than origin) and a symbol was created for each. It is hard to imagine an airline today allotting a budget to design a symbol for each city it serves, to appear in its timetable.
The Air France timetable of the early seventies retained the conventional vertical-reading format but brought it to a new level of modern design. At first glance, this seems like an ordinary timetable. But a closer look reveals not only an intelligent use of the Univers typeface family, but also symbols specially designed to be compatible with it. The Swiss designer of Univers, Adrian Frutiger, designed this timetable.
Timetables from the sixties and seventies demonstrate typographic experimentation and new ways of organizing information that led to new formats. One example is the schedule for the Bavaria, the Trans European Express train from Munich to Zurich. This is a brilliantly and logically designed diagram set in Akzidenz Grotesk, indicating connections to and from the main train line from various provincial points. Its design reflects modernist typographic training from graphic design schools at Basel, Zurich and Ulm. The schedules of the international timetable for Air Canada, dated February to April 1971, are also unconventional in their design, organized by days of the week to accommodate the needs of a schedule that fluctuates daily. The Air Canada diagrams presented the arrival, departure and transfer connection information clearly and had a geographic connotation.
Geographical orientation of departure and arrival points became the basis for several timetable designs functioning as abstract maps. An example of this is Finnair’s visually complex 1976 timetable, showing its network of domestic flights. The information is not so easily found as in a quick-reference schedule, but here one gets a unique visual overview of Finnair’s entire domestic network. For example, most flights converge at Helsinki, and the routes with the most frequency are from Helsinki to Oulu and Turku; this information can be quickly discerned from the diagram. The Deutsche Bundesbahn Intercity timetables of the eighties were perhaps the most successful abstract map-type diagrams in regular, widespread use. The information here can be hard to find, especially for one not familiar with German geography. I imagine that its graphic complexity and abstract quality appealed to the intellectual German mindset. These are all examples of alternative, illustrative approaches to the more traditional typographic timetable.
The quality of timetable design has declined since the sixties, noticeably in the United States. Rapid growth of the airlines after deregulation resulted in more cities were being served by each airline, so timetable information had to be condensed and set in microscopic point sizes, resulting in illegibility. Many used faulty typographic practices such as mixing condensed with normal numerals to save space. The timetables for large companies increased to the size of books. United Airlines timetables in 2000 were approximately 870 pages with a three-quarter inch spine, providing schedules between unlikely city pairs such as Birmingham, Alabama, in the US, and Asmara, Eritrea. For today’s airlines with their extensive worldwide networks, providing code-sharing flights with other airlines and infinite possibilities of connections, the printed timetable has become an impractical and expensive undertaking.
The Internet is now the practical conduit of timetable information for large airlines, and is helping the development of timetable presentation. Unlike printed timetables, information on the Net can be changed and updated frequently. The needs of large transport companies with enormous schedules can be accommodated without condensing information illegibly. Internet timetables, in the hands of designers with typographic sensitivity, can present information clearly and beautifully, with generous spacing reminiscent of timetable design in the sixties. The website for Continental Airlines (continental.com), for example, illustrates this. The timetable section of the Lufthansa web site (lufthansa.com) is innovative and highly functional. The journey information is well designed, visually pleasing and thorough, presenting frequency of service, time duration of flights, aircraft types and even schedules of other airlines. The use of colour is especially effective.
For the railways, particularly commuter railways, the printed timetable seems practical for an urban environment with lots of pedestrian traffic and spontaneous travel. In Britain, the printed timetable for the Great North Eastern Railway (GNER), a relatively small transport network, is functional; it even fits into your pocket. Since timetables can now be downloaded on portable hand-held computer devices, and as more people use such devices, the printed timetable may become obsolete, even for railways.
The hidden typography of timetables reveals visual diversity in information design evolving from printing to digital technology. A variety of formats have been designed, and some are appropriate only for certain transportation systems. Your local bus schedule looks different from a worldwide airline timetable, because the design problems of each are different. Despite these differences, all successful timetables combine a beauty of functional character, where information is accessible and easily found, with an elegance of typography and an aesthetic sensitivity.
This paper made use of several sources. A footnoted version of the paper is available from the author. Please contact him through the conference organisers.
Barry Roseman is Assistant Professor of Graphic Design, Atlanta College of Art, Atlanta, Georgia.