Yes, the navigational signs were first designed with black text on a white background. At sometime in the 1970’s an unknown designer inverted the design to a black background with white type. The reason for this is said to be because dirt from the the trains made the words difficult to read.
I finally know who Massimo Vignelli is. Not that I didn’t know of him, he’s a famous designer, but what I meant was that I’ve heard so many people talk about his character, his italian accent and his humor that it was great curiosity of mine. I recently attended the AIGA NY event, “Navigating the Labyrinth: Unimark International and the New York Subway System“, which he was a speaker at. It was a great event, highly anticipated from my peers and superiors, and it was almost a full house. Even the present sign-decision-maker of the NYC MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) [that's what will call him since he's not a designer] attended and gave his Brooklyn accented two cents worth from his auditorium seat.
Since I’ve lived in NYC for almost 5 years now I’m very familiar with pros and cons of the NYC transit system as well as its confusing maps, so I was very interested on how this talk would go. The talk was a collaboration of all the designers who had worked on the NYC transit system throughout the years. All of them complained about how higher-ups in the MTA never took design seriously and that is why NYC has such a bad rap and wandering riders. I just reminds me again that graphic designers are needed in this world – not just because they make things sell but to make life a little easier.