Stand clear of the closing doors, please!
[This text was originally written during the Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive @ School of Visual Arts, 2015]
Everywhere you go, there he is. He can be heard in up to 6,384 places at the same time. Sometimes in a gentle manner, but always authoritative. He is always on time, unless the service is delayed—as a matter of fact, he makes it a priority to be punctual! But whenever he is there, throughout 421 stations of the New York City Subway, his message is always the same, an audible nudge echoing in the middle of chaos. It takes exactly 7 words long: “STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS, PLEASE”, says the male voice with a vaguely Mid-Western upper-case accent.
The New York City Subway system has many voices in fact. Perhaps the most notable feature of this variety of tones is that most of the instructional and behavioral messages are delivered by a male voice, while directional and informational messages come via female voices. The one who begs us to stand away from the closing doors belongs to Charlie Pellett, a former on-air broadcaster for Bloomberg Radio. Since 1999, when the R142 series subway cars came into service, Pellett’s voice has been heard by millions of commuters everyday.
Pre-recorded voices have been used internationally in airport and railway stations since the late 1960’s. Just like typefaces, the spectrum of voices in audio signage conveys a graphic language. The idea of typography extending to the human voice is not surprising and the attempt to unify the voices and messages on the subway—instead of letting train conductors spit out inaudible words—is just another attempt to establish some order in the midst of chaos. It also tells the story of a safety warning that has become a cultural reference. For London’s Underground, for example, MIND THE GAP warnings have been a sonic landmark for anyone visiting the city. The phrase is printed on many kinds of souvenirs featuring the warning in combination with the network’s roundel logo. On the Madrid subway, a dubbing actor and a broadcaster perform a short duet just before each station: “Próxima estación… Plaza de España”. When in Rome, Berlin or São Paulo, those voices also help you find exit doors.
Some may say cities are finally talking to us, others may argue it is entirely utilitarian, but we can all agree that these spoken forms of public information occupy their own place in the city. It may not be a complete dialogue—sometimes I wonder about this voice breaking the fourth wall and interacting with commuters—but these voices make their way into everyday life. You might not hear from your mother more than once in a week but if you use the subway everyday, this friendly and enthusiastic voice is the one you encounter on a regular basis.
If you’re interested about NYC subway signs, the NYCTA Graphics Standards Manual contains scans of Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda’s (Unimark) modernist masterpiece. The manual describes the design and construction for the iconic NYC subway signs still in use today. More info here.