The visual language of travel can often go unnoticed, but it is arguably some of the most important pieces of design we encounter every day. Trying to catch the train is a bigger priority than admiring the font choice or iconography/ pictograms. But the legibility is a helping hand in getting us from point A to B.
Last week Fraser Muggeridge unveiled a memorial to commemorate one of the most iconic typefaces of all time ‘Johnston’. It is just over 100 years since Edward Johnston and (the infamous, for various reasons I won’t mention) Eric Gill were commissioned to create a typeface for the London Underground.
It has stayed as the official corporate typeface of public transport ever since — meaning it is one of the longest-lasting examples of corporate branding to date.
It has become part of the fabric of London and will undoubtedly remain for many years to come.
The influence of Caslon and lettering from the Column of Trajan in Johnston’s design is clear, but the subtle diamond tittle’s (dots on i’s and j’s) is a reference to the traditional calligraphic tradition which he originally trained in. Calligraphy also influenced him to create the typeface with varying line widths (humanist) which helped to improve the legibility — one of the main criteria of a public domain piece of design.
Just as iconic as the typeface of London Public Transport is the tube map. Early renditions of the map were a clutter of lines, quite frankly… a mess. In 1926 Fred Stingemore came in to help increase the legibility by regularizing spacing between spacing, which did help to improve the design but meant that stations on the outskirts such as Richmond and Edgware were left off the map. It wasn’t until Harry Beck, engineer draughtsmen came and revolutionised the map to the epochal map design which has become embedded in London and instantly recognized by most of the world.
After being made redundant from his job for the Underground and with nothing but time to play with he took redesigning the map as a personal pet project. He originally didn’t plan on showing it further than friends and family but they clearly had a good eye and encouraged him to show it to his previous employers… who were not interested in it, until a year later when he tried again and sold the design for a measly £10 (£600 in modern money). His design has been tweaked throughout the years but remains at
Beck had cracked a system which worked for the tube, years later legendary designer Massimo Vignelli had nailed a system/ design for New York Subway wayfinding. Much like the early days of the tube, the New York system was chaotic and added countless confused, stressful hours to those on their morning commute in the Big Apple.
“less, but better” Dieter Rams
The system which was in place was not worth saving. Vignelli and his business partner Bob Noorda spent countless hours watching people interact with the existing systems — taking it all in and compiling together their own plan. The noticed how when new designers had come in to design extra features for the subway there was a complete mismatch of styles and typography adding to its demise.
“The number one rule, is to give information at the point of decision. Never before and never after.” Massimo Vignelli
The premise for the system was the modernist approach, to keep the information to what was absolutely necessary and focus on the user experience first, then the design. Functionalism. Vignelli saw no other choice for type than his favourite Helvetica, keeping point size changes to a minimum to keep a clear hierarchy.
“Noorda and Vignelli believed that only the least amount of information needed should be presented at each step of the user’s journey.”
Much like how Beck took a creative license to the Underground map, Vignelli did the same, he did not see it necessary to be literal with his designs as it had been proven not to help in user experience. The result of their extensive and exhaustive work is a New York Subway Transit Graphic Standards Manual, renowned for being one of the most comprehensive and celebrated graphics manuals to date. Ensuring that the design and systems created are followed and a repeat of the early chaotic designs can’t find their way back to confuse the people of New York. It has become part of the cities character just has Beck and Johnston shaped the image of London.
“there’s no reason why this map had to be literal — it could be completely abstract.” Massimo Vignelli
Its legacy still lives on to this day, the original manuals are sought after items for those who know its pivotal role in design history. In 2014 two designers from Pentagram started a Kickstarter to reprint it. It far exceeded their expectations and raised just over $800,000—eight times its original goal!
One of the most significant pieces of wayfinding design which I cannot miss, especially living in Amsterdam, is Paul Mijksenaar’s work for Schiphol Airport. Since 1990 Mijksenaar has created signs and pictograms which are recognizable by all across the world. It is famed as being one of the best-designed airports in the world, I always find it depressing leaving Schiphol and arriving back to Manchester Airport which feels like a hospital and is, arguably, one of the worst, most depressing, poorly designed airports in Europe.
A key theme from all the designers I have talked about and what Mijksenaar talks about in his book on the design is putting the passenger first. His colour-coded system eases navigation, he worked closely with Kho Liang le, an interior designer to ensure the design and interior layout was seamless.
It’s the attention to detail which also does go amiss. A quirky example of this is the ‘target fly’ in the toilet urinal, though not directly relating to wayfinding it is an interesting piece of the design nevertheless. It references the Victorian era, when wives would put a bee illustration on a chamber pot so men knew where to urinate (without covering the floor in it) back in a time before Latin became a dead language and bee translated to ‘apis’ which is where the English saying ‘A piss pot’ originates from.
Anyway, the importance of wayfinding systems go beyond just for helping travellers make their flight, but for health and safety. In 1996 a fire broke out in Düsseldorf airport, tragically costing 17 people their lives, the inquiry concluded one of the preventable reasons for deaths were the escape-route signage. Schiphol and Mijksenaar responded to the tragic event by doing everything they could to ensure it would not be repeated. They added colour green onto signage for fire-exits/ escapes only which works in clear contrast to the yellow to stand out.
All of this alongside his work for Geneva and New Delhi Airport, as well 46 Pro Rail stations have earned him the nickname ‘The Godfather of Wayfinding’.
It’s interesting to see how a few changes to details of wayfinding around the world can make the design feel distinctly the countries own. The one which stands out to me is Germany’s choice of DIN, it has been a part of its culture for almost 90 years when it was first used on the autobahn. Its utilitarian form feels quintessentially German. In train stations in Belgium, you can tell the Dutch and Flemish towns apart from their typeface choices, with Brussel’s having an unmistakable French influence. On your next journey take a closer look and see what you notice, but try not to miss your flight!