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.