Standards Manual in Greenpoint Finds Success in Reissuing Relics

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Jesse Reed. Photo by Ian Hartsoe

“We had a hint there might be an interest in this book.”

That hint was raising over $800,000 on Kickstarter to reissue the New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual. But before the online support and incredible demand, this lucrative endeavor began more innocently — with buried treasure.

“We found one of the original manuals in our old office’s basement,” Jesse Reed said of the copy he and his business partner Hamish Smyth discovered and — through enormous fundraising — reissued for public consumption.

New Yorkers love griping about the subway, so it may come as a surprise that this manual elicited such fervid response, but these backers are seeking more than just a handsome coffee table book or conversation starter.

Standards Manual storefront on Franklin Street in Greenpoint. Photo by Ian Hartsoe
Standards Manual storefront on Franklin Street in Greenpoint. Photo by Ian Hartsoe

 

“We knew designers were into it, but once we launched the Kickstarter we found other audiences, and one was people who live in New York City,” Reed said. “They saw the manual and subway signs for the first time as designed objects, and it struck a chord with a lot of people who ride the subway every day. If you were here in the ’70s or earlier, you knew how horrible the signage was, and then you see the manual and how it’s now made.”

“Nostalgia played a big part as well,” Smyth added.

Reed and Smyth sold 7,000 copies from the 2014 Kickstarter, and they continue to sell more — many via social media.

Inside Standards Manual
Inside Standards Manual. Photo by Ian Hartsoe

Through their Instagram account, Reed and Smyth post pictures of a page from their manuals, enticing viewers. “We have e-commerce, but only for our books. It’s been fun; we sell a couple a day just from our posts,” Smyth said.

This multi-channeled demand (and a far surpassed Kickstarter goal) led Reed and Smyth to start an LLC, reissue more graphic artifacts, and open their own brick and mortar: Standards Manual, located at 212 Franklin Street in Greenpoint.

In their minimalist, chic shop, Reed and Smyth are reissuers in the front and designers in the back. The store’s facade showcases reissued manuals (including the Transit Authority’s, NASA’s, and the EPA’s) and a handful of other carefully curated design guides. But in the store’s back, just beyond the glass walls of the shop’s retail front, is Order, the duo’s quickly growing design firm founded in January.

Reed and Smyth were still working at Pentagram (the graphic design and identity powerhouse) when they unearthed the Transit manual, the unexpected catalyst that led them to leave the company and start their own. That was 2012, and today Order has four full-time employees. Much of those in-between years were packed with Xeroxing, Photoshopping, and Kickstarting the original manuals as side projects evolved into multi-thousand dollar campaigns.

“We like that the Transit, EPA, and NASA manuals are very different from one another,” Reed said. “The Transit Authority is not a brand; it’s meant to inform. The identity becomes the letters and colors and numbers. The NASA book is corporate identity — the perfect example of how you take one logo and color and apply it to hundreds of applications, from a 50’ building to business cards. The EPA is a flexible identity system. They have the logo, but all the different departments got sub-brands.”

“Pesticides, radiation…each is assigned a color and pattern,” Smyth said. “This is branding 101.”

On top of the reissuing, the pair was busy with Pentagram jobs — and sometimes more.

Hillary Clinton’s team contacted Michael Bierut — the famed designer and a partner at Pentagram — to create the campaign logo. Bierut entrusted Reed to join.

“It was pro bono; we volunteered our time on it. It’s a campaign rule,” Reed said. “Michael asked me and another project manager to help him out. We couldn’t work on it at the office; we didn’t tell anyone. So for three months it was me randomly working at home—”

“We figured it out,” Smyth laughed. “There was a code name on the calendar: Hi-C, like the drink. There were clues. So we thought, ‘What else could be this big at this time?’ It was pretty easy when we connected the dots.”

Reed added, “It was more or less a normal client relationship,” besides that he got carpal tunnel. “It was intense. I never worked that hard and much. But we were all so into it. We’d do anything.”

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Inside the Order workspace, behind the Standards Manual storefront. Photo by Ian Hartsoe

Reed and Smyth bring equal gusto to their current work at Order. Their experience at Pentagram — where projects ranged from working with MasterCard and Syracure University to Playwrights Horizons and American Institute of Architects — prepared them for new clients who are sometimes Order’s neighbors.

“We’ve worked with people who just walked in here,” Smyth said. “We thought no client would take Brooklyn seriously. But we walked past this place, saw the sign, and called the number to apply.”

“Clients kind of enjoy coming out here, actually,” Reed said.

It’s not hard to believe. The airy, pristine office has an open backyard and ample sitting room to work or pour over the reissued manuals.

“You can’t go on Amazon and touch the design books, talk with the owners. I think that’s the future of retail: specificity,” Reed said. “These books are meant to inform; they don’t have ‘pretty’ designs. I mean, we think they’re beautiful.”

A host of others, it seems, would agree.

Standards Manual | 212 Franklin Street | Open 10am–6pm Monday–Friday, 12–6pm on Saturday

About Billy McEntee

Billy McEntee has been fortunate to work for arts non-profits in Boston, Denver, Berkeley, and now New York. His writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Brooklyn Magazine, Indiewire, HowlRound, Eclectica Magazine, and others. He's usually getting wine at Dandelion or eating cookies at Archestratus.

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