A lifelong straphanger attempts to
rebrand transit in Toronto.

Kipling to Islington/The Catch Up

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.

On Massimo
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
at all.

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.

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.