Making city life more legible

As London expands its wayfinding scheme, Emma Germain looks at the history of similar ‘legible city’ initiatives across the country

As London expands its wayfinding scheme, Emma Germain looks  at the history of similar ‘legible city’ initiatives across the country

It’s a familiar London scene: busy commuters having to bypass lost tourists and out-of-towners standing on street corners desperately clutching their A-Zs.

Even hardened Londoners can find it difficult to get to where they want to go.

To help those individuals find the right path, late last year Transport for London unveiled its ambitious pedestrian wayfinding system, designed by Applied Information Group (DW 28 November 2007). Nineteen ‘talking’ signs that pedestrians can call and listen to on their mobiles, as well as read conventionally, have been placed on Bond Street and the surrounding roads in a £500 000, six-month pilot scheme.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone supports the pilot. He made the announcement last Monday that he would be expanding the Legible London signage system to help people make short trips around the capital on foot. AIG creative director Tim Fendley says there will be three or four more pilots during the next year.

However, the driver of the scheme in London is the public, because, as Fendley explains, this is a research-led project. TfL travel demand management programme director Ben Plowden says, ‘Legible London only works if people find it useful.’ He adds that the evaluation of the scheme, to be published in a report in early March, is very user-centric.

This move towards modern wayfinding is not just happening in London: Sheffield, Glasgow, Bristol and Liverpool have been, or are in the process of being, made more legible. With the discipline growing, the key consultancies operating in this field include AIG, Atelier Works, Fitch, and Lacock and Gullam. Michael Wolff, chairman of the Sign Design Society, which formed in 1991 to promote excellence in signage and wayfinding, says, ‘Anyone working in city wayfinding is in competition with the city environment and its many distractions.’

Bristol was the first British city to aspire to name itself a Legible City in 1999. The project was completed by Fendley together with Sam Gullam – now director of Lacock and Gullam – when they were both working at MetaDesign London. Tina Speake, who co-ordinated that city’s Legible City initiative, says, ‘When the concept was first introduced we used a series of mock-ups to “road test” it. We have since developed the scheme further, with more than two million walking maps, entitled “Welcome To Bristol”, and by giving users an indication of how long it will take them to reach their destinations.’

Gullam is currently working on a radical revamp of Glasgow’s central signage and wayfinding system. He explains that wayfinding systems should not homogenise towns and cities – each has to be different to suit the city it will be used in. This is exactly what Atelier Works recognised as central to its work on Connect Sheffield, when it was appointed, with Pearson Lloyd and City ID, by that city’s council as part of a £500m regeneration scheme. Consultancy director John Powner explains, ‘As Sheffield was the home to type foundry Stephenson Blake & Co, we used it as inspiration, and created a new font called Sheffield Sans.’

In Liverpool, Fitch’s wayfinding system was put in place as part of the city’s submission for European Capital of Culture 2008. Designed to be sympathetic to Liverpudlians’ pride in their city, it uses 3D images of Liverpool’s most iconic buildings – including the Royal Liver Building, the Metropolitan Cathedral and Lime Street Station – to help people orientate themselves. Fitch design director Dave Roberts says, ‘We have highlighted cultural places of interest like the Cavern, and put pictures and stories about The Beatles and Liverpudlian poets and artists on the signs.’

Where London differs – so is more challenging – is that a wayfinding system in Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool or Sheffield is just for one city, while London has a massive array of villages each with their own identity. There is little to link Newham, for example, with Mayfair, apart from their both being in London. Fendley says that the intention is ‘to create a sense of place that shows the user why they are there and what is interesting around them’.

He explains that wayfinding systems tend not to work when they are not predictable. When AIG was appointed in 2004, it found more then 32 signing systems for pedestrians in central London alone.

Pedestrian information in London has always been done in a piecemeal way, often within boroughs. If Legible London is successful, the scheme will run city-wide and involve 33 councils. For the designers this will mean having to work for 33 different clients, and the question is whether they will be able to navigate and find their way through 33 different lots of red tape.

Major wayfinding projects

Bristol: The first Legible City in 1999. Design work on initial scheme by Sam Gullam and Tim Fendley

Sheffield: Design work by Atelier Works, Pearson Lloyd and City ID. Creation of Sheffield Sans font. Implemented between November 2006 and April 2007

Liverpool: Design by Fitch as submission for European Capital of Culture 2008. Highlights cultural places of interest

Glasgow: Plans being developed by Lacock and Gullam and Applied Information Group

London: Transport for London six-month pilot scheme, Legible London. Design by AIG

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