Sitting on my coffee table in my living room is a book from the U.K. by two designs experts. The book is called Signs: Lettering in the Environment, and it is, as you might guess, all about what are known as wayfinding signs.
These signs are a ubiquitous part of everyday life in New York City. We have one-way signs, alternate-side-of-the-street parking signs, street signs, landmark signs, directional signs and, of course, an entire network of signs courtesy of the MTA. The underground signs tell us which way our train is going, what trains we can expect to arrive on which tracks at what time and whether or not the staircase on the left or right will put us on the proper corner.
In Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon’s book, the two write about the theory behind wayfinding signs. These should be welcoming and clear, uniform and informative. As the MTA learned in the 1950s and 1960s, it isn’t always easy to design signs that fit those specifics, and although Massimo Vignelli’s Helvetica signs succeed in certain aspects, in many ways, they live those unfamiliar with subway shorthand confused about the way.
Take, for instance, the sign up above. That sign — a direction with some letters missing — would make no sense to many people, and yet, it marks stations with mid-platf (sic) entrances throughout the system. Apparently, the MTA, short on cash, couldn’t afford the “-form.”
These signs all stem from a 1970 manual by Vignelli and his associates called the New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual. The user Triborough has a full set of photos from the manual, and the images provide a tantalizing glimpse into the world of MTA signage. We can see the theory behind directional signs, the rational behind the placement of signs in complex station mazes and the modular font system designed to make the signs very readable.
But does it work? In general, the MTA’s signage makes sense. Riders know where they are and can figure out, to a reasonable degree, where the trains are going. But sometimes, signs such as the one above creep up. The B train stops at W 4th St., except when it doesn’t, and then you can take the D and transfer to the Q at De Kalb Ave. Usually, the D train runs express and skips DeKalb, except during late nights when it runs local and stops at DeKalb. Good luck, too, determining when that “late night” period is or figuring out what to do for those 90 minutes after the B stops running and before the D makes its stop at De Kalb. Even the MTA’s website is helpless on that front. In the end, the signs make perfect sense to those who use the B and the D and the Q on a regular basis and no sense to those who have never had to interpret Vignelli Subway-ese.
For the next few weeks, Slate is tackling this subject of signs. Julia Turner offered up a primer on signs to introduce the series and yesterday explored how London, a city decidedly not on a grid, is trying to help people get around. (Fun London fact: It’s often faster to walk than it is to take the Tube, but few out-of-towners and even some native Londoners know that because the street map is just that confusing.)
The New York-centric essay in her series involved Turner’s effort at finding her way around Penn Station. Why, she asked, are the signs so confusing? Turner charts her effort, in photos, to get from Lower Manhattan to Amtrak’s half of Penn Station and finds the connection from New York City Transit to Amtrak very complicated. The reason for the confusion, she says, is because three different agencies — the MTA, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak — share the space and have never coordinated on signage. Such are the travails of transit bureaucracy.
We tend to take signs for granted until we don’t know where we’re going. The next time I ride, I’m going to take a look at that plat and see if I can find some gems amidst the MTA signage. Sometimes, you never know on which track that train will arrive even with the signs.