Week 2: Signage and Information Systems
This week we will examine signage. Signage is one of the most basic and omnipresent example of visual design and interface design. Consider a world without graphic design (click on hidden town). Decisions about color, typography, composition, standards and interface all come into play in designing signage.
Signs let you know where you are or where to go, or, what to do (walk, park, exit) or not to do (don’t smoke, don’t turn, don’t go). For signage to be effective the messages need to be clear, concise and intuitive. Design should be used to reinforce the message.
Extensive testing with road signs have demonstrated that upper and lower case type is easier to read than all upper case. Most experts agree that lower case lettering is more legible than all caps. Many New Yorkers however don’t agree that it is $27.5 million dollars more legible and are outraged by a signage replacement program this is now underway to replace all New York City street signs from all caps to title case.
Distilling content to the essential is critical to successful signage. Including more than one instruction on a sign generally minimizes its impact and is often the reason why a sign fails. Too much information can be as misleading as too little information. New York parking signs are a classic example of information overload. Many maps, and transit maps in particular, also make this mistake. Including more detail than is necessary for navigation can confuse rather than clarify.
There are an astonishing number of bad signs that we confront every day and tremendous opportunity for improvement in signage design. I love the don’t walk signs in Oaxaca, Mexico and Spain. The action of the figure says it all. The slides above include some good examples of signage failures.
Much of what we take for granted in signage as obvious design principles were only relatively recently introduced. It wasn’t until early 20th century with an update by Harry Beck to the London Underground Map in 1933 that a digrammatic representation of a map was introduced. Until this time, the Tube map had been a literal overlay of the subway lines on an accurate scale city map. The problem with the overlay approach is that the city center, where the stations were geographically closer together, was illegible. The suburban stations which were geographically spread apart were dictating the scale of the map. Beck’s brilliant abstraction of the subway line system inspired by an electric circuit. He straightened out the lines and enlarged its scale in the center of London, enabling passengers to understand how the city’s most-used stations and lines connected. Beck’s simple innovation has established the standard for transit maps all over the world.
Sequences of signs that provide spatial orientation such signage systems in airports, hospitals, neighborhoods or other large campuses are called wayfinding systems. Wayfinding systems aim to teach the user to understand the rules of orientation by making a mental map of them so they can navigate successfully to a destination. This ‘mental mapping’ – allows people to intuitively understand the rules of the wayfinding system without having the think about what those rules are. The elements of wayfinding systems usually include traditional signage, maps, street furniture and landscaping.
One of the more familiar and iconic wayfinding systems is the Freedom Trail in Boston though it could do more to educate and provide the macro as well as the micro view of where you are. The Legible London project is an excellent example of wayfinding principles. The project was initiated to encourage walking in central London and to educate tourists and residents about pedestrian paths and distances. Beck’s model for the underground maps were intended for Tube riders but people were using them as walking maps, giving them inaccurate impressions about distance as locations that are in fact quite close together in reality can appear far apart on the Tube map. There are some important principles in the Legible London project that challenge some of the standard conventions of mapmaking. Legible London maps are user-centric. The maps use landmarks as the key orientation metric not north/south. The traditional ‘you are here’ is replaced with concentric circles indicating walking distances. The placement of the maps in the urban landscape was determined by pedestrian patterns and sight lines.
Consider the incoherence and inconsistency of signage at Penn Station. This excellent series in Slate by Juila Turner provides an excellent analysis of the wayfinding failures of Penn Station. Slate: Lost in Penn Station: Why are the signs at the nation’s busiest train hub so confusing?
And for your further amusement, The Colbert Report’s generic man. (start at 3:00)
Read Slate’s: Secret Language of Signs
Photograph 4-5 examples of unsuccessful signage or other visual communication and post them to your blog. Come to class prepared to present and discuss your examples. Take one of your signs and redesign it, solving the problem you have identified as being wrong with it.