agenda by Zosia Swidlicka

reading time 3 minutes

Bob Noorda may not be a name that is dropped in lecture halls and design studios as often as Milton Glaser’s may be, but the humble Dutch Milanese transplant was instrumental in elevating graphic design to its vital place in modern society. Spanning 5 decades of advertising, publishing, packaging, corporate identity, wayfinding and information architecture, Noorda’s portfolio reads like an illustrated history of Italian industry.

Born in Amsterdam in 1927, Noorda moved to Milan at the age of 27 to develop his career. In the mid-fifties the city was the centre of modernity, design and research, and he quickly got snapped up by tyremaker Pirelli as their art director. Here is where he first introduced the idea of a coordinated brand image, applying the same visual elements in different ways to build up a recognisable identity. The brand name and logo merge with tyre tracks and rubber cables in a variety of colours and treatments, imbuing the familiar with a touch of the unexpected.

His gift for turning out spare, elegant and logical designs quickly caught the eye of the Società Metropolitana Milanese, who commissioned Noorda to design the station signage for the new Line 1. Working closely with the architects, Noorda seamlessly integrated the graphic elements into the buildings’ features. Handrails, entrances and lighting were translated into typographic elements.

On the station platforms, Noorda added two different coloured bands. The top band communicated all the signage, directing passengers to the nearest exit, connections and safety signs on a white background. The bottom band bore the colour of the metro line and repeated the name of the station at a height of 2 metres and at 5-metre intervals. The whole alphabet was redesigned to avoid characters that were too tall, sharp or dark, weights were varied and counters enlarged to improve legibility. Crucially, this quiet innovation allowed passengers on a moving carriage to easily get their bearings as the train pulled into the station, and won him a Golden Compass Award, Italy’s highest industrial design honour.

Then New York called, wanting to implement the same improvements to their subway system. Together with Massimo Vignelli, Noorda’s partner at the newly-established Unimark design firm, Noorda went back underground to apply his methodology to the big apple, reportedly spending weeks riding the subway to study passenger patterns and traffic flow in order to produce the graphic system and manual for the New York Transit Authority.


The challenge was overwhelming in its complexity. “Sometimes pieces of paper taped to the wall were the only indication for the station,” Noorda remarked. The duo was tasked with untangling over 30 different lines and establishing clear standards that rapidly delivered information to hurried travellers. They had to factor in certain realities such as changing the signage background to black to avoid it becoming defaced or dirtied. Noorda tackled the mayhem head-on, employing a systematic approach to every single detail. From selecting the typeface (Helvetica) to colour coding, every aspect was standardised following his meticulous research and careful consideration of the whole. The result was a complex web of information distilled into its simplest form. The work is now part of the MoMA permanent collection.

Perhaps the most enduring of his logo designs was produced in 1975 for the Lombardy region, in collaboration with Roberto Sambonet and Pino Tovaglia. The project’s presentation, written by the poet Franco Fortini, reveals the depth of thought that went into its creation:

“An emblem is destined to last and even if it is necessarily linked to the time in which it is created, it must go beyond that time.”

The tension between the region’s history and its modern existence is teased out with a great respect for its forefathers. Leonardo da Vinci’s “knots” provide inspiration for a sign that goes beyond mere symbolism and allegory. The Camunian Rose, inscribed on the region’s rocks and boulders in the Bronze Age, provides the starting point. Noorda and his partners reduced the graphic down to its essential form, and and imbued it with dynamism.

“We favoured a sign that (a) was essential and mainly abstract, as memorable as a seal, and easily reproduced; and (b) whose form was able to represent a range of values and trigger associations, especially those relating specifically to the Lombardy Region.”

Bob Noorda believed that “a good design project must not be influenced by trends, but must last as long as possible”. By focusing on solving problems with functional, understated graphics, he ensured his legacy would continue to resonate with future generations for years to come.

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