A Sense of Direction

Service design in Tanzania.

Pete Jobes

It’s not rare for the design of transit services to become iconic. Harry Beck’s tube map, for instance, or Massimo Vignelli’s map and signage designs for the New York City Subway.

Similarities in the way we do things means that you can generally get on the transport in any major western city and figure it out from the visual design, but it seems rare that we see much of design from the developing world.

The design of public transport is service design.

In May I had the pleasure of visiting Mwanza, the second largest city in Tanzania. I’m fascinated by the unfamiliar, and Africa certainly proved to be that.

Dala-dalas in the city of Mwanza, Tanzania.

Mwanza isn’t like a European city. It’s centre is relatively small and many inhabitants live on the hills clustered around the city. It doesn’t have a subway system, or a network of public transport buses like you might find in London or Paris. In Mwanza the locals get around by dala-dala.

A dala-dala is essentially a shared taxi. There are hundreds of them running around the city, and all of those I saw were Toyota Hi-Ace minibuses. Officially? They should probably fit about a dozen people, but it seems the done thing to drive them at double or more capacity.

What I loved about the dala-dalas, however, isn’t the quantity of them — and it certainly isn’t the ride quality. What I love about the dala-dalas in Mwanza is the usability of the design.

They’re often bright, colourful, customised. They carry quotes, bible verses, driver names, photographs of Arsenal reserve players. They really show the driver’s personality, something that I guess is important if you’re going to trust the fellow with your life on those roads, but in amongst it all the required information is clearly communicated.

Half way up the side of the vehicle is a strip of colour that wraps around it completely. This is split, so each quarter is an alternate colour. Whether viewed from the front, the back, or either side, you can always see two colours.

A dala-dala serving the Ilemela M to Kishiri route, via Mecci.

Each major destination has it’s own colour; Bwiru is yellow, Ilemela is red, the airport a deep maroon colour. On to this colour strip is stencilled, in the same font, the name of the destination. By merely glancing at one of these privately owned taxis, you can instantly tell the route that it serves.

Fares are stencilled onto the colour strip in smaller letters on the sliding door. If the route the dala-dala runs goes via a specific location it’s written on the front of the vehicle at the point where the colours meet.

It’s simple and usable. The design demonstrates the importance of strong and consistent visual language.

Although it’s a collection of private taxis, rather than a public transport network, their design has evolved to the benefit of the user. By doing things in a consistent way across owners and firms the system is easier to use and therefore more widely used.

To get maximum benefit for the user, individuals, companies and departments cannot exist in silos. The use of consistent design patterns and elements greatly aids user experience.

As for the quality of the journey? Well, you pays your money you takes your chance.

Pete Jobes

Written by

UX Designer. Presently designing online services for UK Government. Views my own.

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