A lifelong straphanger attempts to
rebrand transit in Toronto.

Edit: turns out the video cannot be embedded here! Just click the “Watch on Vimeo” link and it will take you right to it! 

Part one of a three part conversation that exhaustively discusses the history of the New York Subway signage system. Parts two and three can be found here and here, respectively. Paul Shaw’s book on the topic is also excellent reading.

Totally fascinating as some of the issues that prompted the new system in New York clearly impact the TTC today. Worth a watch!

Progressive Disclosure A transit solution found *gasp* in your carOne of the main criticisms of the TTC’s new wayfinding solutions (PDF), which I share, is that what was pitched to the Board was not an exercise in introducing a genuine wayfinding system. Certain elements were tweaked with the end goal of standardizing the look and feel of signage and that’s something I can’t argue with in principle (the execution leaves something to be desired, personally, but I’m just one guy), but there is no true “system” that appears to be at work.
In fairness, there may very well be a larger, over-arching plan that, due to time constraints, would’ve taken too long or been too complex to articulate in the presentation. That said, none of the visual evidence presented seems to indicate that this plan exists, as I’ve mentioned in a previous entry. The most glaring omission, as I’ve noted before, is a seeming lack of consideration for “decision points;” the signs presented seem to give you every piece of information you could need or want all at once. This is not an effective way to disclose information in any capacity, but particularly in wayfinding. Although I assume most of those reading this aren’t drivers, I’m sure you’ll know that a GPS doesn’t spit out a summary of each step of your journey as soon as you input your destination. It gives you bits and pieces that guide you from decision point to decision point; only when you need to make a change are you given new information. This principle, “progressive disclosure” (sounds like a 90s-era Harrison Ford movie or a sanitized, PR-generated term for a Bush-era torture technique) is used in human-computer interaction design, and is becoming central to the effectiveness of wayfinding systems elsewhere. This principle should be applied to not only to where signs are located within TTC facilities but also how information should be disclosed within a sign. You’ll note in the signs I’ve created previously, and in the ones above, there are steps at work. The closer you get to the sign, the more information is provided:
1) Coloured square, as the largest element on the sign, stands out from far away, and via colour/pictogram identifies which line the information provided pertains to as well as the mode of transit2) The arrow identifies the direction to travel within the immediate area to access that line3) Large text confirms line name4) Small text identifies direction line is travelling This means that if I’m familiar with the system, its lines, colours, and pictograms, I could see that sign from halfway across the ticket hall, and know where I needed to go based purely on the first two elements. If I’m less familiar, all I need to do is continue walking in the direction I’m probably headed anyway to have any outstanding questions I have clarified. The same thought process *could* be applied using the numbered system proposed by the TTC, but without a pictogram, would not completely articulate what the service is that is being offered, especially for visitors to the city or those less familiar with the system. It’s not necessarily a large distinction, but I think it’s an important one: if the rationale behind numbering is to (rightly) fold LRTs in with the rapid transit system, that means the terms “subway” and “LRT” would ideally be dropped from the vernacular. All rapid transit would be referred to as lines (as I’ve suggested before). That works more or less fine with numbers and colours, but I think in order to maximize intuitiveness, there still needs to be a visual reference as to the mode you’re looking to access. If every other piece of information I take in throughout the system has failed to sink in, I should at least be able to identify that if I am looking for the subway but see an LRT train approaching the platform I’m on, I’m in the wrong place. Is this overkill? Probably. But the system needs to be as universally accessible as possible, and that means you’ve got to make it foolproof. The customer should not have to think. Any confusion stemming from the TTC’s rapid transit system will not come from the number of lines, but rather that the system is made up of two, and depending on how long the Scarborough RT sticks around, three modes. They are three different technologies being referred to as the same thing and at a certain point that has to be addressed. The biggest difference between them is visual so, to me, it makes sense that the distinction should begin and end there. With that in mind, in the examples above, the sets of signs show how progressive disclosure works to guide a customer from the ticket hall to the platform (left), and conversely, from the platform to the street (right). It’s a principle I applied in planning and executing crowd movements at London 2012, and we encounter numerous examples of this process in our daily lives. Somehow, it seems to have been omitted from the thinking behind the TTC plans presented thus far. When I opined previously about design being an integral part of defining usefulness, I didn’t simply mean how the thing looks. A thing should look good as it can, absolutely. But design doesn’t just extend to graphics or aesthetics, it includes, much more importantly, planning how a person uses what you’re producing. Even Charles and Ray Eames, probably America’s greatest designers of the 20th century, had criticism levelled at their educational films (notably Power of Ten) and exhibitions (The World of Franklin and Jefferson) for missing this step (although their deficiencies had more to do with the breadth of information and the pace/scale in which it was conveyed, not necessarily a lack of progressive disclosure). Is it hand holding? Maybe. By disclosing information progressively and then using this same system consistently across the transit network (and indeed, each sign), I look at it as giving a man a fish and teaching him how to fish at the same time. You’re teaching the user what to look for by creating an environment of predictability; they will learn quickly that they’ll be told what they need to know when it’s relevant. They will learn to navigate the system while they actually navigate the system, and, if it works like it should, they shouldn’t need to know anything other than where their point B is before they start their journey.
I hope, despite this thought process not being evident in what’s been released so far, that those working behind the scenes will deliver a product that helps the TTC reach its objective of bringing simplicity and clarity to customer journeys and, ultimately, make it easier for transit users to get to where they need to go. But, by ignoring progressive disclosure, they risk undermining that entire effort.

Progressive Disclosure 
A transit solution found *gasp* in your car

One of the main criticisms of the TTC’s new wayfinding solutions (PDF), which I share, is that what was pitched to the Board was not an exercise in introducing a genuine wayfinding system. Certain elements were tweaked with the end goal of standardizing the look and feel of signage and that’s something I can’t argue with in principle (the execution leaves something to be desired, personally, but I’m just one guy), but there is no true “system” that appears to be at work.

In fairness, there may very well be a larger, over-arching plan that, due to time constraints, would’ve taken too long or been too complex to articulate in the presentation. That said, none of the visual evidence presented seems to indicate that this plan exists, as I’ve mentioned in a previous entry. The most glaring omission, as I’ve noted before, is a seeming lack of consideration for “decision points;” the signs presented seem to give you every piece of information you could need or want all at once. This is not an effective way to disclose information in any capacity, but particularly in wayfinding. Although I assume most of those reading this aren’t drivers, I’m sure you’ll know that a GPS doesn’t spit out a summary of each step of your journey as soon as you input your destination. It gives you bits and pieces that guide you from decision point to decision point; only when you need to make a change are you given new information. This principle, “progressive disclosure” (sounds like a 90s-era Harrison Ford movie or a sanitized, PR-generated term for a Bush-era torture technique) is used in human-computer interaction design, and is becoming central to the effectiveness of wayfinding systems elsewhere.

This principle should be applied to not only to where signs are located within TTC facilities but also how information should be disclosed within a sign. You’ll note in the signs I’ve created previously, and in the ones above, there are steps at work. The closer you get to the sign, the more information is provided:

1) Coloured square, as the largest element on the sign, stands out from far away, and via colour/pictogram identifies which line the information provided pertains to as well as the mode of transit

2) The arrow identifies the direction to travel within the immediate area to access that line

3) Large text confirms line name

4) Small text identifies direction line is travelling

This means that if I’m familiar with the system, its lines, colours, and pictograms, I could see that sign from halfway across the ticket hall, and know where I needed to go based purely on the first two elements. If I’m less familiar, all I need to do is continue walking in the direction I’m probably headed anyway to have any outstanding questions I have clarified. The same thought process *could* be applied using the numbered system proposed by the TTC, but without a pictogram, would not completely articulate what the service is that is being offered, especially for visitors to the city or those less familiar with the system. It’s not necessarily a large distinction, but I think it’s an important one: if the rationale behind numbering is to (rightly) fold LRTs in with the rapid transit system, that means the terms “subway” and “LRT” would ideally be dropped from the vernacular. All rapid transit would be referred to as lines (as I’ve suggested before). That works more or less fine with numbers and colours, but I think in order to maximize intuitiveness, there still needs to be a visual reference as to the mode you’re looking to access. If every other piece of information I take in throughout the system has failed to sink in, I should at least be able to identify that if I am looking for the subway but see an LRT train approaching the platform I’m on, I’m in the wrong place.

Is this overkill?
Probably. But the system needs to be as universally accessible as possible, and that means you’ve got to make it foolproof. The customer should not have to think. Any confusion stemming from the TTC’s rapid transit system will not come from the number of lines, but rather that the system is made up of two, and depending on how long the Scarborough RT sticks around, three modes. They are three different technologies being referred to as the same thing and at a certain point that has to be addressed. The biggest difference between them is visual so, to me, it makes sense that the distinction should begin and end there.

With that in mind, in the examples above, the sets of signs show how progressive disclosure works to guide a customer from the ticket hall to the platform (left), and conversely, from the platform to the street (right). It’s a principle I applied in planning and executing crowd movements at London 2012, and we encounter numerous examples of this process in our daily lives. Somehow, it seems to have been omitted from the thinking behind the TTC plans presented thus far.

When I opined previously about design being an integral part of defining usefulness, I didn’t simply mean how the thing looks. A thing should look good as it can, absolutely. But design doesn’t just extend to graphics or aesthetics, it includes, much more importantly, planning how a person uses what you’re producing. Even Charles and Ray Eames, probably America’s greatest designers of the 20th century, had criticism levelled at their educational films (notably Power of Ten) and exhibitions (The World of Franklin and Jefferson) for missing this step (although their deficiencies had more to do with the breadth of information and the pace/scale in which it was conveyed, not necessarily a lack of progressive disclosure). Is it hand holding? Maybe. By disclosing information progressively and then using this same system consistently across the transit network (and indeed, each sign), I look at it as giving a man a fish and teaching him how to fish at the same time. You’re teaching the user what to look for by creating an environment of predictability; they will learn quickly that they’ll be told what they need to know when it’s relevant. They will learn to navigate the system while they actually navigate the system, and, if it works like it should, they shouldn’t need to know anything other than where their point B is before they start their journey.

I hope, despite this thought process not being evident in what’s been released so far, that those working behind the scenes will deliver a product that helps the TTC reach its objective of bringing simplicity and clarity to customer journeys and, ultimately, make it easier for transit users to get to where they need to go. But, by ignoring progressive disclosure, they risk undermining that entire effort.

Great insights into wayfinding design from Tony Howard of the Transport Design Consultancy. His firm’s previous clients include the Sydney and Dubai metro systems, as well as Transport for London, including work on their London 2012 (yay!) wayfinding solutions.

Big take-aways (look at me throwing around dreaded corporate-speak): wayfinding needs to stand out, the message needs to be instantly decipherable and, while pictograms can lead the messaging, they cannot be the only messaging.

Edit (October 27, 2013): Deleted line map in order to correct legibility/consistency issues. Will re-post as part of another entry at a later date.

Edit (October 24, 2013): Re-uploaded so images are now enlargeable. 

“The test of the goodness of a thing is its fitness for use. If it fails on this first test, no amount of ornamentation or finish will make it any better; it will only make it more expensive, more foolish.”
 – Frank Pick

There are no doubt many reasons why Apple has become the most successful manufacturer of consumer goods in human history. Chief among them, however, was the recognition by Steve Jobs since the early days of the company of the important role design plays in not only the aesthetic appeal of a product (it has to look attractive for people to want to use it), but in how the user interacts with that product. Although I sense the pendulum is slowly swinging in the other direction, one of Apple’s continual strengths is, aside from just looking cool, their products are remarkably easy to use. Turn on an iPhone for the first time and there’s very little you need to know beforehand in order to make a call, play music, check out the app store, etc. Toddlers and their grandparents alike, despite not having been “conditioned” to use technology, can figure out how to make their way around an iPad in a matter of minutes. With all this in mind, Apple’s product has not been dumbed down in anyway, and is the choice brand for many who work in fields heavily reliant on technology.

Frank Pick was something of a Steve Jobs in his day. The head of London Transport through much of the 1930s, he was considered by many to be Britain’s greatest 20th century innovator. And like Jobs, he was driven not just by a desire to better his product for the sake of the bottom-line, but to continually improve its usefulness and, by extension, its importance to consumers. He was responsible for the hiring of Edward Johnston, who designed the system’s famous typeface (still the only typeface the system uses), as well as created a standardized “roundel” logo, now one of the world’s most recognizable symbols. It was under his watch that the revolutionary map by Harry Beck was introduced into regular circulation, and it now forms the blueprint for nearly every metro system map in the world.

Like Jobs, he wasn’t the guy who executed the designs. He simply had the good sense to recognize the role design plays in our daily lives, and how it can help customers find the path of least resistance in using a product or service. Frank Pick had Edward Johnston, just as Steve Jobs had Jonny Ive. No man-made object has ever been truly successful without great design and many, many products fail when they are made to favour the manufacturers’ needs instead of the consumers.

Microsoft has had the good sense to recognize this as one of the main reasons it was losing market share to Apple and, despite some hiccups, has developed a much more intuitive operating system it now consistently applies across all its products. I use a Windows Phone and actually find it more intuitive to use than the iPhone I once had.

With this in mind, the aim of this blog, as ever, is to underline that good design, when applied to the TTC’s wayfinding, signage and branding can be a key component in the Commission’s goal to better its singular function: getting people to where they need to go.

With that in mind, I was quite disappointed to see the “new” wayfinding system presented to the TTC at their most recent board meeting (PDF). Aesthetics are a matter of taste (and also practicality; there’s a reason my signs are white instead of the proposed black), but the system, as pitched, really only takes a half-step in the right direction. The presentation emphasizes consistency, which is obviously critically important in any branding exercise, but stops short of addressing some of the systems’ other areas of concern, such as a the hierarchal presentation of information, defining what information should be presented at what point on a customer’s journey (decision points), legibility (Helvetica, its variants and the Toronto Subway typeface all have deficiencies in this regard), and a streamlined message, that is to say, presenting the highest amount of information in the fewest elements possible while still being immediately understandable.

In short, I don’t think anything proposed is necessarily any better than the status quo, and falls short of Pick’s critical first test. The sign featured at the top of this post, taken from the TTC’s presentation, is a perfect example: seemingly contradictory (or at the very least confusing) messages blend together, such that it’s nearly impossible to tell where one message ends and the other begins. If I want to get to the #2 train do I go up or do I go down? The arrow says to my left, but there’s also stairs and an escalator. If I’m a wheelchair user is there a dedicated accessible path I need to use to access the train? The accessible symbol seems to indicate that’s the case, but then why are there stairs? Do I have to go up or down to leave the station and get to the buses?

If a sign isn’t understandable almost immediately, if it causes confusion such that someone is not being helped along their journey, then that sign has failed in the only thing it ever needed to achieve, and no set of new graphics, or the TTC font, or coloured circles or numbers will disguise that fact. Nothing presented so far moves the wayfinding system toward being more effective; it has the temperament of functionality without being truly function. Brad Ross, the TTC’s Director of Communications (who, for the record, has a rather thankless job and, having worked in the field, I have nothing but admiration for) said in a tweet that he “thinks people will like” the new signs. Whether they do or don’t should not be the first criterion used to determine if the signage system is a success. Whether or not people find them useful is priority one, and all other concerns are secondary. 

Above is a sample of some signs from the TTC presentation with examples of how I would convey some of the same directions under my “BWF system.” Key to this is grouping messages by their “type;” directions to trains within the rapid transit system are kept separate from directions to exits, access information is kept separate unto itself. 

Before I jump in, let me apologize for the lack of updates of late. Planning for my best friends’ wedding, and then in turn recovering from it, derailed my regular blogging for a while. I recently attended a sort of “celebration of transit” held by TransLink here in Vancouver, about which I will write soon, but a recent glimpse of proposed new TTC uniforms, and the fallout from those photos as discussed in the National Post, demands I get back at this. Immediately. I take on the standard uniform here, outerwear and other pieces will follow in a later entry. 
Toronto Transit CoutureI will say it up front: I am a complete clotheshorse. Whether or not I actually do dress well is up for others to determine, but I am certainly always motivated in the attempt and if nothing else I have some very strong opinions about how I believe certain things should be not only in how I dress myself, but also in how others do the same. Those opinions, with occasional exceptions, generally skew in favour of classic looks and pieces, and always towards a degree of formality where the office is concerned; I have an almost moral opposition to casual Friday. This sentiment clashes somewhat with my current Bieber-meets-Harry Styles hair but, truly, I believe putting that little extra effort into your appearance, rightly or wrongly, communicates a lot about how seriously you take your job and how much you value making a good impression on those you encounter throughout your day. It shows you give a damn. And, as the TTC’s front-line staff’s reputation has eroded in recent years in the court of public opinion, I think to modernize the organization, it is critically important to put ones’ best foot forward in appearance, just as in deed.
As such, I reacted with relative horror when I saw what was being pitched as the TTC’s new kit. The colours did not especially bother me and the “controversy” surrounding the red and blue was the stuff of headache-inducing eyerolls (red and blue, while indeed the colours of the Montréal Canadiens, are also the two colours featured on Toronto’s flag, guys; also, I hate the Leafs), rather it was the pieces that left me horrified: cheap-looking ballpark giveaway hats and the kind of polo one would expect to be given as a door-prize at a mid-level waste removal contractor’s annual golf tournament. The sketches, in turn, left me totally confused: there was no particular aesthetic that was being captured and I was completely baffled as to what the message was meant to be. The toque and parka looked very West Queen West, while the shorts and cap looked like an outfit for ball kids at a tennis tournament circa 1986. Regardless, neither look seemed well suited to the current crop of TTC personnel, who are too adult to be sporting this kind of attire, particularly on the job. More importantly, none of the pieces as shown in the article convey a sense of dignity or pride. If the TTC is to transform itself into ‘transit system Toronto can be proud of’ as it hopes, that pride must first be conveyed by an enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff who, yes, look good. 
Past senseIn developing my uniform design, I decided to reach into the TTC’s past, and take inspiration from an era where conveying that sense of pride took precedent over nearly all other concerns (BlogTO has a great sampling of past TTC kits here). The uniforms would be wool in charcoal grey, charcoal being a natural choice as it has been used in past uniforms and is the most versatile neutral (and, as you all know, you never wear black before 6:00pm anyway). Some of the more extraneous elements from uniforms past, like epaulets and belts worn mid-torso, have been eliminated. The jacket would have a dual-zip front instead of buttons for greater ease-of-use and interior pockets only, to maintain the silhouette. It would accompanied by grey slacks, a white collared dress shirt, TTC-red tie and peaked hat. The slacks could be traded for a pencil skirt for women, to be worn with black leather boots reaching just below the knee. Men would wear black leather lace-ups. Both the hat and left-breast would feature a brushed metal TTC logo pin in a silver colour.  
Perhaps this might all seem a bit too formal, given the hands-on nature of some of the work TTC personel undertake, however, there would be flexibility with regards to the jacket and hat with both being optional pieces most of the time. And, at the end of the day, I do not think a shirt, tie and slacks is too cumbersome an outfit for anyone on the job. 
Most importantly, however, from a customer perspective, seeing a station staffed with personnel wearing a well-tailored, dignified and understated uniform sends an immediate message about the service we are pay for: that TTC employees value how they look while on the job and, in turn, they value us.  

Before I jump in, let me apologize for the lack of updates of late. Planning for my best friends’ wedding, and then in turn recovering from it, derailed my regular blogging for a while. I recently attended a sort of “celebration of transit” held by TransLink here in Vancouver, about which I will write soon, but a recent glimpse of proposed new TTC uniforms, and the fallout from those photos as discussed in the National Post, demands I get back at this. Immediately. I take on the standard uniform here, outerwear and other pieces will follow in a later entry. 

Toronto Transit Couture
I will say it up front: I am a complete clotheshorse. Whether or not I actually do dress well is up for others to determine, but I am certainly always motivated in the attempt and if nothing else I have some very strong opinions about how I believe certain things should be not only in how I dress myself, but also in how others do the same. Those opinions, with occasional exceptions, generally skew in favour of classic looks and pieces, and always towards a degree of formality where the office is concerned; I have an almost moral opposition to casual Friday. This sentiment clashes somewhat with my current Bieber-meets-Harry Styles hair but, truly, I believe putting that little extra effort into your appearance, rightly or wrongly, communicates a lot about how seriously you take your job and how much you value making a good impression on those you encounter throughout your day. It shows you give a damn. And, as the TTC’s front-line staff’s reputation has eroded in recent years in the court of public opinion, I think to modernize the organization, it is critically important to put ones’ best foot forward in appearance, just as in deed.

As such, I reacted with relative horror when I saw what was being pitched as the TTC’s new kit. The colours did not especially bother me and the “controversy” surrounding the red and blue was the stuff of headache-inducing eyerolls (red and blue, while indeed the colours of the Montréal Canadiens, are also the two colours featured on Toronto’s flag, guys; also, I hate the Leafs), rather it was the pieces that left me horrified: cheap-looking ballpark giveaway hats and the kind of polo one would expect to be given as a door-prize at a mid-level waste removal contractor’s annual golf tournament. The sketches, in turn, left me totally confused: there was no particular aesthetic that was being captured and I was completely baffled as to what the message was meant to be. The toque and parka looked very West Queen West, while the shorts and cap looked like an outfit for ball kids at a tennis tournament circa 1986. Regardless, neither look seemed well suited to the current crop of TTC personnel, who are too adult to be sporting this kind of attire, particularly on the job. More importantly, none of the pieces as shown in the article convey a sense of dignity or pride. If the TTC is to transform itself into ‘transit system Toronto can be proud of’ as it hopes, that pride must first be conveyed by an enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff who, yes, look good. 

Past sense
In developing my uniform design, I decided to reach into the TTC’s past, and take inspiration from an era where conveying that sense of pride took precedent over nearly all other concerns (BlogTO has a great sampling of past TTC kits here). The uniforms would be wool in charcoal grey, charcoal being a natural choice as it has been used in past uniforms and is the most versatile neutral (and, as you all know, you never wear black before 6:00pm anyway). Some of the more extraneous elements from uniforms past, like epaulets and belts worn mid-torso, have been eliminated. The jacket would have a dual-zip front instead of buttons for greater ease-of-use and interior pockets only, to maintain the 
silhouette. It would accompanied by grey slacks, a white collared dress shirt, TTC-red tie and peaked hat. The slacks could be traded for a pencil skirt for women, to be worn with black leather boots reaching just below the knee. Men would wear black leather lace-ups. Both the hat and left-breast would feature a brushed metal TTC logo pin in a silver colour.  

Perhaps this might all seem a bit too formal, given the hands-on nature of some of the work TTC personel undertake, however, there would be flexibility with regards to the jacket and hat with both being optional pieces most of the time. And, at the end of the day, I do not think a shirt, tie and slacks is too cumbersome an outfit for anyone on the job. 

Most importantly, however, from a customer perspective, seeing a station staffed with personnel wearing a well-tailored, dignified and understated uniform sends an immediate message about the service we are pay for: that TTC employees value how they look while on the job and, in turn, they value us.