Seamless flow

Wayfinding is becoming an ever more central part of new infrastructure, and it is at its most crucial in the realm of transport. So how do you design signs that are so intuitive that they’re easy to take in under pressure, while also looking good? Anna Richardson navigates recent schemes

All wayfinding is about functionality, legibility and accessibility, but transport signage has to work especially hard. Aimed at travellers who might be passing through a transport hub for the first time, transport wayfinding needs to be clear, visible and intuitive. ’You’ve got to provide singing for a large number of people who are making decisions under great pressure, often using an interchange that they’ve never been to before,’ says Tony Howard, founder of Transport Design Consultancy. ’Signing is no longer a nicety – it’s become a necessity.’

’[In transport signage] there are rarely second chances to get the information right for the viewer, and a wrong decision can be followed by many more wrong decisions in transport environments,’ explains Mark Ross, director of Dot Dash.

One of the main challenges in good wayfinding design for transport is the growing demand for it. With new transport systems planned around the world, from airports to cycle lanes – and everything in-between – good signage design has never been more crucial.

’People are not only looking to provide transport systems for a local audience, but are approaching it on a global scale,’ says Howard. Where some years ago signage was often an afterthought in large-scale building projects, it is now a significant part of a project from the start.

Signing is considered to be more important by architects and engineers. It’s critical because signing is part of the whole identity of the transport system.’

Transport Design Consultancy recently struck up a partnership with Tata Group’s design arm Tata Elxsi in India, and is now working on a number of potential projects, including a new metro system for Bangalore. India is a prime example of a country where the transport infrastructure is struggling to keep up with economic growth, says Howard.

It’s not just high-profile, large-scale transport systems that can benefit from well-designed signage. Last year’s Sign Design Awards recognised a wayfinding scheme for the Moreton Bay Cycleway in Australia, designed by consultancy Dot Dash, with its public wayfinding award. The judges praised the ’simple, but extremely well-thought-through solution’. ’The astute use of colour, materials and placement blended to produce something which was not only functionally successful, but highly appealing,’ they said.

Whatever the project, a comprehensive wayfinding strategy, before pen is even put to paper, is vital, says Gavin McMurray, managing director of Merson Sign Design.

’Before you get into the process of designing the signs, you have to understand the different types of people who will be using the facility,’ explains McMurray. Other issues include safety – particularly in times of heightened security – as signing has to work around security systems such as CCTV.

Last year, rail travel stepped into the spotlight in the UK. In November, the Department for Transport published an independent review, Better Rail Stations, which recommended basic minimum standards in facilities and information provision.

’There’s been a huge resurgence in rail travel,’ says Chris Green, stations champion and author of Better Rail Stations. ’A lot of people using rail transport have never used it before and they’re expecting the clarity of airport [signage].’

Consistent signage between different forms of transport – from cars, to bicycles and pedestrian – is especially important, adds Green.

’A lot of the UK’s signing was done in the 1960s, so it clearly does need rethinking.’ The use of pictograms should also be explored more in the UK, believes Green, who is a keynote speaker at the inaugural Future of Station Design conference later this month, where pictograms will be high on the agenda.

But the biggest change in wayfinding design for transport is the backdrop signs have to compete with, says McMurray. Travellers move through what are effectively shopping malls at every transport hub. ’The proliferation of retail signs combining with advertising means that wayfinding has to shout very loudly to even be noticed among this visual noise,’ says McMurray. ’Therefore, consistent use of colour and good positioning is vital, and illuminating signs becomes all the more important.’ In the Netherlands, for example, designers won’t allow advertising where they need wayfinding, Green points out, whereas in the UK advertising is granted the most lucrative position.

With many such functional and strategic considerations, and the growing demand for standardised global signage, you might think there is no room for a local slant to transport signage design. But people do think of their transport system in local terms, says Howard. ’We try to build in as much local influence as we can, without it affecting the purpose of the signing. Those things do matter.’

The Future of Station Design conference takes place on 29 April at the London Transport Museum, Covent Garden

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