City maze

To make a city truly legible, as well as a great place to visit, live and work, Colette Jeffrey suggests that councils take a more holistic approach and look beyond installing yet more signage

Cityscapes have a mass of different wayfinding stimuli – signs, road markings, pavements, landmark buildings and artworks. Many people are adept at processing these visual cues to create a mental map to decide which direction to go. Others are intimidated and stressed by cities and need clear, consistent wayfinding information to find their way. ‘How easy a place is to describe is often a clue to how legible it is,’ says Tim Fendley, creative director of Applied Information Group, who was involved in creating Bristol Legible City and recently spearheaded the in-progress Legible London project.

Legible cities aren’t a new concept. Kevin Lynch published Image of the City more than 45 years ago and talked about the legibility of a cityscape and how ‘moving elements in a city, and in particular the people and their activities, are as important as the stationary physical parts’. But no British city had aspired to name itself as a Legible City until Bristol spent time and money on an award-winning wayfinding project in 1999. Many other towns and cities followed suit, including Liverpool, Sheffield and, more recently, Southampton, Romford and London. Cities have realised that to attract businesses and people they need to think seriously about how they are perceived and the legibility of their city.

To succeed at offering clear messages, councils need to see wayfinding as a multi-sensory, inclusive experience and a key part of their brand experience. Southampton City Council saw its wayfinding project as an integral part of its city branding project. The council wanted a distinct image for the city and to ensure that visitors have a positive experience. When City ID and Dalton Maag began working on wayfinding they realised that Southampton’s existing identity was ‘wholly inappropriate for wayfinding information. How it would work from the bottom up, more than just as a logo, had not been considered’, says Mike Rawlinson, director of City ID. So the wayfinding project shaped a new identity, to reflect the needs of information users and provide an appropriate look for city information.

To succeed, Legible City projects need to vary from one city to another, to reflect the individual personality and ambitions of each place. ‘While the Bristol and Sheffield projects were more driven by the need to link regeneration areas, the Southampton project is very shopping-focused,’ says Rawlinson. The focus was to reveal hotspots such as West Quay and link them to less-visited areas. Pedestrian maps designed by City ID using a bespoke typeface and pictogram set designed by Dalton Maag, as well as a website, have recently been launched. The Legible City project will eventually encompass thousands of products and services across the city, from the design of information centres at airport and ferry terminals to bus tickets, timetables, route maps, liveries and uniforms. Creating a solution that captured the essence of the city and its people was a key aim.

Accessibility has been an important focus for the new town centre strategy in Romford. A new project will ‘combine a heads-up mapping strategy with secondary-level directional information that doesn’t rely on fingerposts’, says Roger Crabtree, design director of Wood & Wood Design. As a small, self-contained grid of pedestrian thoroughfares, Romford presented the designers with the opportunity to suggest innovative solutions. Monoliths with simple, linear maps were devised, as the street plan lends itself to them being positioned in line, along routes through the town. The user can look ahead and see their next point of reference. The 22 monoliths will replace the old-style system of maps and fingerposts, reducing street furniture and visual clutter.

Disability equality consultant June Bretherton assessed Wood & Wood’s design proposals for accessibility and inclusivity. She advised that a monolith is more desirable than a fingerpost for a person with a visual impairment, as the information can be read standing still, and a long-cane user, or their guide dog, can use the monoliths as ‘markers’ along a journey. ‘This is the first wayfinding solution that we have found that is easy for anyone to use and we expect it to become the flagship for other developments in modern, user-friendly wayfinding,’ says Bretherton. ‘We would like to see linear route maps adopted across all town centres, campuses and estates.’

In London, ‘Pedestrian information is done in a piecemeal way, often within borough boundaries – so the result is that they don’t connect together. No one was taking city-wide responsibility,’ says Fendley. The project aims to encourage more walking in a transport-congested city, by means of a city-wide information system designed for pedestrians. Detailed studies have revealed how people walk around London, or why they don’t. They found that many journeys people make on the Underground would have been quicker on foot.

However, the idea of an integrated, pan-London wayfinding system is fraught with challenges. While the Bristol Legible City’s team had one council to liaise with, the Legible London project has 33. There are currently 32 distinct pedestrian signage systems within the Congestion Charge zone alone. The alternative single system could help people – both residents and visitors – to create a mental image of the city, linking local areas with central ones. ‘The street nameplates in the north of Covent Garden are in Camden Borough and therefore have a Camden logo. This could be confusing for a visitor who could think that Camden market is not far away,’ says Fendley. A walking map system will be an important part of the project.

No doubt some people will be resistant to this radical approach, including those boroughs that have recently invested in new pedestrian signage systems that express their particular characteristics, such as Islington. But if they agree with the Legible London project philosophy, they will understand that the information needs to cross boundaries. A London-wide, street information system that delivers consistent messages is now a likely outcome.

Colette Jeffrey is wayfinding design director at Enterprise IG and a director of the Sign Design Society

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