As those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, I recently returned to Toronto after a two-year-plus stint divided between Vancouver and London, England. I’m now living out in the west end smack in between Kipling and Islington stations, and will frequently use one or the other to get into town. Coincidentally, that very portion of the Bloor-Danforth line was subject to a planned shutdown for track work this past weekend.
When I had lived in Toronto previously, I had never encountered a planned suspension of service, so I was curious to see how the TTC handled communication and customer interaction on the ground. The track upgrade project presented a perfect opportunity to see their efforts in action and, from start to finish, I don’t know that the shutdown could have been handled any better.
In the weeks leading up to the upgrade work, there was plenty of advance notice online as well as inside stations. Temporary signage was clear and precise and light on text, instead focusing on a diagram that was straightforward and easy to understand. Audio announcements were frequent and always clearly audible (I’m not sure if the speaker system inside both trains and stations has been upgraded since 2012, but I had absolutely no difficulty hearing announcements regardless of where I was on the system, a change from my previous time spent here).
Heading into the station on the Saturday of the shutdown, I was taken aback by how well-coordinated the customer-facing elements of the shutdown seemed (which is not a criticism, rather just an understanding that these efforts can often be complex and difficult to get right). There was plenty of distinct, fluorescent orange signage pointing the way to shuttle buses, and staff wearing that same orange were, well, everywhere in both the ticket hall and at platform level. The use of a distinct colour, not found anywhere else in the system, seemed an almost deliberate nod to Transport for London’s strategy during London 2012: Games-specific signage, as well as staff who could provide directions and information specific to the Olympics/Paralympics were all dressed in a very distinct magenta. Garish? Maybe, but effective: it was an immediate signal to the customer that this information was important and it needed their attention.
The staff themselves were engaged and on-top of things, letting each customer at the foot of the platform stairs known all trains were heading east, while if you were heading up the stairs to catch a shuttle bus, a member of staff kept you apprised of the platform where the bus would be arriving. They had info sheets to hand out to customers who needed assistance.
It worked. The various solutions put in place were exactly what the situation called and were well planned and executed. From my perspective, it was faultless and as much as I’ve been wont to underline things I think the TTC can do better, they got this absolutely right and a stick-tap to all involved. If this is the standard to which all these kinds of projects will be handled going forward, then I am confident the TTC can readily scale to meet the communications and customer service demands of larger, more complex and, yes, more disruptive projects.
I had been thinking for a while that I needed to get back to blogging here regularly, and I knew that one of the first topics I would need to devote some time to would be the recent passing, and legacy, of Massimo Vignelli. That said, I hummed and hawed about how I could really pay adequate tribute to Mr. Vignelli as the scope of his contribution to the world of design, and in many ways the world at large, is so mammoth it wholly defies my ability to articulate it. Many is the time over the past several weeks and months where I’ve stared at a blank screen thinking “what should I say about Massimo,” and ultimately decided the subject was too profound, closed my laptop in frustration, turned on some Jamie xx and had another Red Stripe. But I keep coming back, struggling to write something meaningful and worthwhile and striking out every time.
Perhaps that in and of itself is enough tribute; his work and life so significant that it calls for something more than the customary corralling of a few complimentary adjectives. I won’t, then, attempt to outline the highlights of his CV for you (that information can be found with an easy Google search), but rather I will say that which I am best qualified to: Massimo Vignelli is the reason I know or care about design
I first came to know about Mr. Vignelli via the film Helvetica, which pays tribute to the typeface of the same name, itself one of only a handful of fonts Vignelli lists as being either good or useful. The film speaks at length about his work designing signage and wayfinding for the New York subway system which, for someone with such a feverish interest in these things, was all I needed by way of motivation to try and absorb all there was to know about this man. Evidently the TTC are fans of his too, as the new signage system is largely lifted from the MTA’s 80s-era revision of Vignelli’s New York work.
In the time I’ve spent reading about, and listening to, Mr. Vignelli since then, two lessons have stood out: first, one of the world’s greatest designers never really considered himself a designer. Rather, he considered himself an “information architect.” While his work was always dizzyingly perfect in its aesthetics, creating something visually beautiful was never his sole motivation. Rather, adhering to a sensical, structured and ultimately useful way of presenting a subject was job one, and any aesthetic appeal would stem from the simplicity and inherent “rightness” of the execution. His New York subway diagram is a perfect example: it’s a pristine crystallization of a sprawling and complex network that, in its simplicity, takes on a unique beauty. The work of Dieter Rams and Jonathan Ive follows a similar philosophy and it’s no coincidence their work is similarly revered.
The second lesson stems from my favourite quote from Vignelli, again from Helvetica: “The life of a designer is a life of fight. Fight against the ugliness. Just like a doctor fights against disease. For us, the visual disease is what we have around, and what we try to do is cure it somehow with design.” It probably sounds much more pompous in print that it does when articulated by a sweet, elderly Italian gentleman. Nevertheless, Vignelli is right: there is ugliness everywhere. Not ugliness in the sense of things that are not inherently pretty; there is ugliness in the extraneous, in the needlessly complicated, the inefficient. Vignelli was a surgeon, snipping and cutting away ugliness wherever he saw it with such precision that it many ways it seems incomprehensible that thing could be done any better (and many have tried and failed as with the new American Airlines logo and branding, for example).
His example is one I’ve tried to follow, albeit in my own ham-fisted way, via this blog and in that regard I would call him, in addition to whatever other titles you or I or he might assign Massimo Vignelli, an advocate. By showing us a better, more effective way of designing our logos, our maps, our household wares, our buildings, Vignelli not only showed us the value of design, but its power. While his greatest tribute was perhaps the thousands upon thousands of letters he received from fans and admirers, I think, perhaps too, it’s that the fight against ugliness will continue through those he’s inspired.
The Underground Fashion Scene
As I’m sure most of you are aware, the TTC recently launched its online shop. I’m impressed with the selection of merchandise available so far as the TTC seems to be focusing on interesting, high quality poster designs rather than giving in to temptation and offering the mass-produced-on-the-cheap t-shirts and hats that were the cornerstone of an earlier foray into merchandise.
I have no doubt apparel is coming, and when it does, I hope the TTC will follow the example of Roundel London, a line of streetwear commissioned by the London Underground/Transport for London. Rather than tourist-style souvenir t-shirts, Roundel is positioned as a legitimate clothing brand in its own right, focusing on pieces that speak to the city’s culture, particularly that of east London. Their designs draw on graphics from old posters and advertisements, as well as a seat fabric pattern (or ‘moquette’) which adorned buses and District Line trains in the 70s and 80s. The District Line moquette has even made it on to a pair of super-limited-edition Nike Air Max 90s and 1s which, well, are about the coolest damn sneakers I’ve ever seen. There is something subversive, too, about their use of the Underground roundel logo in black instead of the traditional blue and red.
When the TTC does begin to look at apparel, I hope they follow Roundel’s lead: high-quality pieces with an eye towards streetwear and a strong cultural aesthetic, rather than just tourist gear. Perhaps a collab with Shared, Tuck Shop Co., Legends League, Trife or even OVO? Suggested names: Shield & Ribbon or Line 6.
The Kees to the City
Take a few minutes out of your day (if I haven’t used them all up already), and check out this video about the City of Toronto’s Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat and her creative process. Very enlightening and inspiring. I’ve long admired Ms. Keesmaat’s innovative, forward-thinking approach to civic engagement and the obvious competence and creativity she brings to her role, and anything she has to say tends to be worth sitting up and paying attention to. Also, I’m really into the lingering beauty shots of that Eames chair.