Sketchbook: The CharlieCard: Chris Crutchfield

After rejecting names like the Cod ("Card," in a Boston accent) and T Liberty, the transit agency settled on CharlieCard, an homage to the Kingston Trio’s 1959 song "Charlie on the MTA." All that remained was figuring out what the card would look like—but as it turned out, there would be a few stops along the way.

At first the MBTA wasn’t sure how to depict the title character of "Charlie on the MTA," so early proposals (pictured below) focused on Hub scenes and subway images. But after seeing a 1959 Life article about the song that included a cartoon of Charlie, the MBTA decided the design would include him. "It gave us something to emulate," says MBTA marketing director Barbara Moulton.

Chosen from a pool of five graphic designers on the strength of his art deco–inspired cartoon figures, Crutchfield was given a daunting design mandate: Charlie could not have a recognizable gender or ethnicity, since the goal was to represent the diversity of the T’s riders. Crutchfield did his best, but "when I tried to skirt the gender thing," he recalls, "it wound up as some humanoid blob."

After upper management gave the blob sketches a thumbs-down, Crutchfield got the go-ahead to make Charlie a man. The designer added hair, glasses, and a sweater, but left the face blank to preserve some ambiguity. And since the MBTA wanted Charlie on a train, Crutchfield drew him leaning out the window of a Red Line car—though perhaps a bit too far. As the MBTA reminded Crutchfield, "We look down on that sort of thing."

For the final draft, the MBTA decided Charlie’s ride should be the Green Line—as it is in the song—and the character himself should feel like more of a throwback. "In Boston, we’re so steeped in history," Moulton says. "We felt, Let’s memorialize the Charlie of the song." So out went the sweater and glasses in favor of a suit and fedora. Crutchfield solved the diversity problem by surrounding Charlie with smiling fellow riders (including a Sox fan who looks suspiciously like the artist’s brother-in-law). "They’re all happy for the guy," Crutchfield says, "even though he’s oddly dressed and hanging out the window."

  • Anna

    I always wondered who is behind the ugly, tasteless, embarrassing MBTA identity. Odd is not the word. Who is Chris Crutchfield? Thank you for the article.

  • Rachel

    “Ugly, tasteless, embarrassing” — such words were also used to describe the Eiffel Tower at the time. Who is Chris Crutchfield? One of the most talented graphic designers around, that’s who.

  • Ken

    I like the CharlieCard and the other designs as well. Good wide-ranging options were presented. In the business we call that smart. Nice job marketing director and illustrator.

  • Sarah

    I like the CharlieCard and the other designs as well. Good wide-ranging options were presented. In the business we call that smart. Nice job marketing director and illustrator.

  • Melissa

    I recently discovered the T poster explaining the Kingston Trio/Charlie on the MTA phenomenon that’s downstairs on the T platform at the Symphony stop. I think the card’s design is very clever – certainly better than London’s Oyster Card.