Artwork by the MTA; collage by Laura Thompson

The first time I rode the subway after lockdown ended, I was nervous. And a little excited, too. For the most part, I had been biking and walking to get around New York City and hadn’t taken the train—which I normally love riding—in about five months. As I descended into my station, I felt choked up. I had made this trip many times, but after reading news reports about essential workers dying, many of whom were MTA bus and train operators, the platform suddenly had so much more weight attached to it. I remember noticing the social distancing markers—the yellow-and-black footprints (and sometimes paw prints!) marking where I should stand while waiting for a train—and the signs reminding me that face coverings are required. Then I met Mask Man, one of the illustrated characters in the MTA’s “Safe Travels” campaign that feels like a cross between an emoji and a Mr. Men cartoon. 

Mask Man was having a little trouble with his face covering. In one illustration, his handkerchief was tied around his neck. “Not helpful” the phrase next to him read. The next illustrations showed him covering up his chin, then his mouth, and finally his nose. “Bingo! That’s It!” the sign said. His expression changed in each illustration from one of worry to one of happiness. The next graphic that cycled through the platform’s LCD display had two Mask Men, both wearing their face coverings properly, next to the phrase “You Take Care of Me. I Take Care of You.” I laughed to myself—and pulled my phone out as fast as I could to take a picture before the screen changed, thinking I might never see this PSA again. But the MTA has been running it, and continually updating it, since March 2020.

A banner displaying the MTA’s Safe Travels campaign. Courtesy: MTA.

The Safe Travels campaign was instantly endearing. It was also so very New York: direct, clever, and witty, with the sense of camaraderie that always defines the city during a disaster. I was fascinated by this friendly little figure just trying to do the right thing, like I was. It didn’t feel like a COVID PSA; it felt like an entirely new visual language, which is exactly what Sarah Meyer, the MTA’s Chief Customer Officer, and JP Chan, the MTA’s Creative Director, aspired to. I admired the strategy, which clearly took its cues from commercial advertising rather than governmental communications. That’s because Meyer and Chan have smartly chosen to build their strategy around emphasizing storytelling over relaying a firehose of facts to riders. 

It didn’t feel like a COVID PSA; it felt like an entirely new visual language.

“Just blasting the customer with information is a more typical way for government agencies to speak to the public,” Chan says. “When you basically throw out all the information that you think someone could possibly use, you are insulating yourself from charges that you left something out. We think that’s too conservative.” Instead, Chan and Meyer’s team built a campaign that respects riders’ intelligence by offering information that is useful, concise, and transparent. “The customer benefits more when they have to do less work,” Chan says. “We do the work and we do the thinking, which is honestly our job as a transportation provider. We have to take care of our customers.”  

Even though the Safe Travels campaign was created as a pandemic product, it feels like it’s transcended it and become a new shorthand for communication, a present-day equivalent to Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda’s famed graphic standards for New York City Transit. Incidentally, the implementation of Safe Travels in 2020 was exactly 50 years after the manual was first published. It had to do everything that a wayfinding sign does—communicate with the city’s tourists and 8.5 million residents who speak 700 languages—and so much more. 

Yet unlike the other visual language the subway is known for, this campaign wasn’t fastidiously hashed out over years at a drafting table; it was done on the fly. Every day, New Yorkers are witnessing a new graphic system evolve in real time. “Did anyone have a brief for the pandemic?’” Chan quips. “I would love to say, ‘Yeah, we had incredible foresight and we figured it all out. But hell no, it was nothing like that. We were improvising.” 

The Safe Travels campaign as seen on an exterior billboard. Courtesy: MTA.

During the early days of the pandemic, the MTA was concerned about overcrowding on its trains. It encouraged customers who weren’t essential workers to stay home through a dead-simple flow chart that began with “Essential Worker” in block letters. If the answer was yes, the response was “Okay to ride.” If the answer was no, the response was, “Why are you even here reading this? Go home.” Once travel restrictions were lifted and it was safer for more riders to return to the system, the campaign reminded travelers about mask mandates and encouraged riders to quietly read instead of engaging in droplet-spreading conversation. (The campaign has been working, too; correct mask usage has been hovering around 85 percent systemwide.) Once vaccines became available, the campaign grew to include websites about where you could schedule one.

I’ve only taken the subway sporadically over the past two years, but each time I entered the system, I noticed that the campaign was growing. There were new characters—most of which were illustrated by former MTA creative team staffer Steven Moverley—some with feminine or androgynous hairstyles, some wearing surgical masks, others sporting homemade versions fashioned from zig-zag fabric. All of the characters were expressive, despite how spare the drawings were. Eyebrow placement and a thumbs up accomplished a lot. 

Courtesy: MTA.

“We always joke that we are creating the ‘MTA Cinematic Universe’ with all these characters and this world-building for these campaigns,” Chan says. “Mask Man—or Mask Person—definitely got some more friends.” Around Halloween, a character donning a Dracula costume appeared. Cupid cropped up around Valentine’s Day. And George Washington and Abraham Lincoln made cameos on Presidents’ Day. When it got cold out, the characters started wearing scarves and parkas, just like everyone else.

The main reason Safe Travels is so affable is because the MTA doesn’t want to scare people. When the pandemic began, public transit was accused of spreading COVID-19, with no scientific proof to back that up. Studies later showed that riding public transit poses little risk for catching an infection, but the stigma remains. The default tactic for safety and security communications is fear-based, like Rampage, the pro-vaccine mascot the Department for the Aging used in its PSA campaign. The MTA wanted its riders to be cautious and vigilant, but ultimately comfortable using its services. “Our number one job right now is winning riders back to the system,” Chan says. “Winning people back to public transportation is not just an MTA struggle, but a struggle across our industry.” I ask Chan what we might see from the campaign in the future. “That’s a loaded question,” Chan replies. “Do we see an end to the pandemic? I would like all the problems to end tomorrow and honestly not have to talk about this anymore. But we’re here until things get figured out.”