dot-font: Underground Typography
There are few more obviously functional forms of environmental typography than the signage in a subway or other transit system. A couple of years ago, I found myself riding the subways of New York, London, and Paris, all in the space of the same month. This gave me an unusual opportunity to compare the three systems firsthand, and to judge which was easiest to navigate.
All three cities have had subways for a long time, so their subway systems have become conglomerations of once-independent underground rail lines, and palimpsests of various systems of naming, numbering, and signage imposed over the decades. The hodgepodge nature of the subways makes their signage all the more important.
From End to End in Paris
The Paris Metro is the simplest, conceptually. Each line runs simply from one end to the other, without branching off into multiple directions (usually), and each is identified by the name of the station on either end. The trouble is that several of the lines have been extended since I first learned the system many years ago, and they are consequently identified by the names of the new stations that now terminate the lines. Luckily, each line is also numbered, and the numbers seem to be given more prominence since the expansion than they used to be.
The signage typefaces vary, but quite a lot of the signs are in a face designed for the purpose by Adrian Frutiger (creator of Univers and the eponymous type family Frutiger), which serves admirably. More recently, Jean-François Porchez developed a new typeface for Metro signage -- one that also works well. Finding the correct train is generally easy, even in a complicated station -- even, in fact, where construction has made it necessary to direct riders who are changing lines outside the station itself, across a square, and through parts of a large train station in order to reach the connecting subway line. But it's not always easy to spot the name of the station as you're pulling in.
Knowing Where You Are in London
The London Underground is famous for its bold, clear station signs, with the easy-to-spot logo of circle and red bar, and for its completely stylized, nearly abstract system map (to download a 1MB version, click here) -- the first of its kind when it came out early in the last century. The map tells you nothing about the land over your head, but it provides a perfectly understandable schematic of the system itself. (It cannot, however, do much to warn you about the vast distances between "connecting" lines in complex tangles like Paddington Station. The signs directing you through that major rail terminus to the various Underground lines are numerous but misleading.)
What struck me most about the London system, however, was that on every train I rode, it was always possible to see (unless someone was standing in my way) the name of the station clearly displayed outside the window on either side. Not only are there signs at very frequent intervals along the platforms, but there are signs all along the wall on the far side of the tracks, too -- and they align perfectly with the windows of the cars. For clarity and, most of all, consistency, London wins hands down.
Local Knowledge in New York City
The New York subway system, as you might guess, is the most chaotic as well as the most complex. It's really not right to call it a "system"; it is many systems, laid on top of each other over the years, and many, many exceptions. (It's sort of like the English language, where the exceptions seem to outnumber the rules.) When I moved back there three years ago, it took me months of frustration before I remembered what I'd forgotten: that New Yorkers take great pride and perverse delight in mastering the intricacies of their subways, like inhabitants of a great forest knowing how to find the watering-hole where the bears like to gather. The lines have all been numbered or lettered, and color-coded, for more than thirty years, but you still hear people referring blithely to the "East Side IRT" or the "Lexington Avenue Local."
New York subway lines are now designated with single letters or numbers. The signage uses a version of Aksidenz Grotesk, a precursor to Helvetica.
When I first started riding the New York subways, in the late '60s, this system had just been instituted in an attempt to impose a rational overlay on the organic chaos of daily travel. As I learned much later, it was Massimo Vignelli and his design office who gave Gotham a new, consistent system, and he took the idea behind the London Underground map one step farther, in creating the now-famous wiring-diagram map of New York's vastly complicated subway lines. Today's map is a compromise -- equally complex, but much more organic.
It was a marvelous conceptual map, and it was easy to read. It was a tool for navigating the subways, although not one for navigating the city streets; you had to know where you were going. (Only recently did I find out that Vignelli had planned a second, complementary map that would have been more tied to the actual above-ground geography. The city never let him do it.) There were landmarks that I knew only as subway stations, where I changed trains deep underground without ever knowing what the streets and buildings above me looked like. But it was easy to navigate within the system itself.
The one exception was one I ran afoul of when I was first learning my way around, and it was the result, I assume, of the time it takes to actually implement any ambitious system of re-labeling an entire city. The new maps identified the lines solely by their letters or numbers, not by the names of the three formerly separate transit companies that had been united (the IRT, the BMT, and the IND). But in stations where lines from two or more of the old companies crossed, the actual signs you'd see embedded in the tile walls often said, "IRT Uptown" or "This Way to BMT Trains." It was a while before the colorful new circles with their identifying numbers or letters were installed in all the hundreds of stations.
That's not a problem now. With all the Vignelli-inspired signs in their bold, '60s-looking sans serif (a version of Aksidenz Grotesk, the precursor of Helvetica), there's a consistency to much of the signage in New York's underground. But the walls are still full of much older signs -- tiles and carved plaster and plaques with curlicues -- as well as some more recent attempts at updating the system that don't work particularly well. These signs, old and new, appear at all sorts of different heights and positions, and the various kinds of subway cars all seem to have different windows on varying levels, with plenty of posts and sign-holders blocking the view in inconsistent ways. All this adds up to a situation where often you can't look out the train window and tell what station you're in. (During rush hour, when I was jammed in among a crush of fellow commuters and could only see a small patch of station platform between the arms, legs, and newspapers, I learned to recognize prominent stations by the patterns of construction in their walls. "Oh, it's Fourteenth Street. Three more stops.")
The walls of some stations in the New York subway system still direct riders to the long-merged IRT, BMT, or IND lines.
The most counter-productive contribution to this signage mess is what appears to be an attempt to save on materials and installation costs by putting the name of the station only on every other one of the pillars that march down many station platforms, rather than on each pillar. This is not very useful if your car stops in front of one of the unlabeled pillars. In addition, the newer signs are only found on the front and back sides of the pillars, as though subway riders were suburban commuters facing forward or back in their seats; the old, tiled signs, with their peculiar abbreviations so that long names could fit ("BL'KER" for Bleeker), at least appear on all four sides of the pillars, so they can be read from any direction.
In the New York subway system, old and new styles of signage exist side by side.
When the station signage is inadequate, you have to rely on getting your information inside the car itself.
The last time I was in New York, I got to ride one of the brand-new cars, designed by Antenna Design, which have been getting a lot of notice in the design press. (Only a few are on the tracks thus far.) In practice, when they pull up to a station platform and you get on, they don't seem all that radically different from the old "Redbird" cars (which, according to press reports, may soon find their decommissioned carcasses lying full fathom five off the New Jersey and Long Island coasts, as "artificial reefs" to attract fish). The new cars seem practical and unusually pleasant, but ultimately they're just a new style, not a wildly different approach to riding the subway. They've got the same old ads for Dr. Z's skin-care treatments.
But they do have, unlike anything seen on New York's subway lines before, prerecorded announcements of the train's next stop, and little lights on a diagram of the stations on that line to tell you where you are and which direction you're going. (They also have noticeably wider doors than the old cars, which ought to speed things up at rush hour.) The voice of the automated announcements does not have a New York accent, sadly, but it does have the virtue of being clear and easy to understand. I'm sure that New Yorkers are already complaining that this clarity takes the fun out of things, and are prematurely pining for the highly personal and unpredictable voices that would squawk, warble, gargle, murmur, shriek, and otherwise pretend to communicate information over a PA system that was always tuned either too soft or way, way too loud.
But automated systems have to work right.
In London a couple of years ago, I was riding one of the new, automated cars on the Northern Line (which used to have the oldest, grottiest cars in the Underground -- and still does, sometimes), admiring the improvements to comfort, décor, and clarity of announcements, when I realized that the automated voice was just a few beats off in its timing. The doors would open, people would get on and off, and the doors would be just starting to slide shut when the voice announced the station stop. Still a few bugs in the system.
In Boston, which also recently started using new cars with automated station announcements, I was riding the Red Line in from Braintree and listening to the prerecorded voice announce, "Next stop: Quincy Adams." Unfortunately, it repeated the same thing at every station -- "Next stop: Quincy Adams" -- as it left the Quincy Adams stop behind and trundled farther and farther into the heart of the city.
Finding Our Way Through the Mess
It's amazing, sometimes, how inadequate the information design can be in a transit system. In Seattle, where I lived for many years, there is no subway per se, but the transit system spent a huge amount of time and money building an underground bus tunnel through downtown (in which they laid tracks, in case they later decided to run light-rail trains). There are only a handful of stations, but for some reason, each has an entirely different style of signs for the station name. As a friend pointed out when we were talking about the subject of this column, "The first thing I do when I get into a city's transit system is look around and figure out what style of lettering the information is in. Here in Seattle, in the bus tunnel, there is no style." Just to make it a little harder, the station names are designed to be easily readable if you're standing in front of them -- but not necessarily if you're looking at them at an extreme angle as you come into the station on a bus.
In San Francisco, the original signs in the BART stations are so discreet that they blend into the background (though perhaps they stood out when they were fresh and new). The lettering is actually quite clear, and very well spaced to be readable from any angle; it's just that the signs themselves are too few, too subtly positioned, almost too self-effacing.
There is no perfect signage system, just as there is no perfect transit system. We live in unruly, jumbled human agglomerations, which, no matter how huge they may be, are made up of lots of local places and individual people in unique, interlocking communities and neighborhoods. But it's very, very useful when someone can recognize the patterns of all that urban life and translate it into information, and then make that information -- simplified, systematized, and clearly marked -- available to all the people rushing about their business through the streets and tunnels.
Read more by John D. Berry.