New TTC signage is on the wrong track

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.Of the many offspring generated by the history of functionalism, the art of designing wayfinding systems (also called directional signage)...

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.

Of the many offspring generated by the history of functionalism, the art of designing wayfinding systems (also called directional signage) is perhaps the most rigorous of all.

More closely aligned with engineering than with art, it has always cloaked itself in quasi-scientific raiment, claiming true allegiance to the dictum ‘form follows function.’

Easily processed

If the function is to get people from point a to b as quickly and efficiently as possible, it follows that the form should be immediately recognizable and easily processed.

The vocabulary of signage should then be based on signs and symbols that are already familiar to the user, and the grammar should reflect existing reading habits.

These rules seem self-evident in a world governed by directional signs.

But imagine that you get up one morning and drive to work to find that the stop signs at all the intersections have been changed from red octagons to purple parallelograms.

Needless to say, getting there without having to use your air bag would be a perilous challenge.

This is precisely what is happening at the Toronto Transit Commission’s St. George subway station, test site for a new style of directional signage to be used on Toronto’s rapid transit system.

Veteran tube jockeys as well as first-time riders are now confronted with a confusing array of new signs and symbols that violate the most basic rules of communication, sending the mind on flights of analytical fancy instead of sending the passenger down the right track.

For veterans who have formed a clear mental map of the simple underground network, there is not only new nomenclature to deal with, but a brand new vocabulary of visual icons to get used to.

What was once called the Yonge-University line is now the ‘Yellow Line,’ and the Bloor-Danforth line is called the ‘Green Line.’

Granted, the colors are based on those used on the decades-old route map, but having to forget calling these routes by their old names is annoying.

And for the newcomer, it is oblivious to the streets under which the lines are running, thus preventing any association between surface and subterranean travel.

New icons

There are suddenly new icons used to represent some of the stations.

St. George station is symbolized by a rather heraldic dragon, which makes sense to anyone familiar with English mythology. But what does it mean to a Chinese rider?

And can anyone tell us why Spadina station is symbolized by a native Indian headdress? Only a few stations have been subjected to this puzzling iconography, but the mind boggles at the thought of what lies in store for the rest of the network.

In the past, cardinal directions were always spelled out – northbound, southbound, eastbound and westbound.

Little black circles

Now we have little black circles with marginally visible arrowheads at the four antipodes, presumably symbolizing a compass.

But, unlike a compass, the circles are emblazoned with only one letter each (n, s, e, w.) Directional assistance would be more effective if there were only one arrowhead to a letter, pointing the rider in the right direction.

Another confusing symbol is the red shield with a ‘t’ emblazoned on it and the word ‘transit’ directly below it. It sits next to an icon of a bus.

Are the wayfinding engineers making sure that, lest we forget, the bus is also a form of transit?

The piece de resistance is most definitely a large backlit representation of the Bloor-Danforth line (Green Line? Not!).

At one end is your final destination, which in this case is Kennedy station. All the stations eastbound between St. George and Kennedy are labelled diagonally and illuminated. But all the stations west of St. George are both unlabelled and unlit.

Obviously, the sign designer has decided that you only need to know the stations that lie between you and your eastbound destination. Seems logical.

But the visual effect is that either the whole western leg of the line is no longer in operation, or the light in the right half of the sign is burnt out.

Poor execution

Aside from all of these conceptual bloopers, the overall quality of execution is poor. Ill-conceived line weights and proportions create closure where there should be openness, and oversized symbols create crowding where there should be comfort.

The choice of Gill Sans ignores the letterforms of the original station signs, and has to live cheek by jowl with more recent signage done in Helvetica (which bears no resemblance to the original either.)

Why could a custom alphabet based on the old signs not have been commissioned?

Once again, the Toronto Transit Commission has demonstrated a complete ignorance of its own design heritage and the basics of visual style and communication.

Ignominious decisions

If allowed to permeate the system, the new signage can take its place beside such ignominious decisions as changing the livery from burgundy and yellow to red and white, commissioning John Boyle to create those hideous murals at the Queen and College stations, and choosing that most bilious hue of mustard-coloured tiles for the Dundas station.

That’s what happens when you let an engineer do a designer’s job.

Will Novosedlik and Bob Russell are principals of Russell Design in Toronto.