Phinding your way around Philadelphia: A proposal for SEPTA’s wayfinding design

Last year, SEPTA announced an intent to overhaul its signage to enable easier and more accessible transit wayfinding design. After decades of difficult to read signage in crudely compressed Helvetica on line color backgrounds, supplemented by ad hoc placement of a bewildering variety of newer signs installed by SEPTA and the city, local transit advocates can find hope of a more legible transit system.

This could go very right or very wrong. To yield much-needed benefits, a signage overhaul must start from first principles. A coherent transit agency image, making SEPTA’s signage and publicity readily identifiable among the visual clutter of Philadelphia’s streets and concourses. Thence the names, colors, letters and numbers assigned to each line. From there, wayfinding signage can be designed and placed with the necessary precision.

In this article I’ll make proposals for each step of the wayfinding process, in hope that advocates can get behind the degree of change Philadelphia’s transit system requires at this moment.

Wayfinding principles

A set of principles widely followed in wayfinding design should guide this process. Firstly, consistency. The names of lines, stations, places and directions must be defined and consistently applied. This way, what’s read on wayfinding signage matches the directions of maps, online journey planners, members of staff and so forth. For example, trains shall run Westbound to 69th Street and Eastbound to Frankford, avoiding the temptation to flip it to North and South as the line heads up Front Street.

Secondly, information hierarchy. Information stacked in one place is confusing; to avoid this a hierarchy of what the rider needs to know right now should be followed. To begin with, where the rider is and whether their intended line can be found there (station signs, bus stop flags). Then, within station complexes, directions to their intended line, followed by directions to the appropriate track for the required destination and/or service pattern (signage or departure screens). Finally, whether the vehicle arriving is the desired one (announcements and destination indicators).

We move down this hierarchy at the point of decision. The rider is first pointed towards the Broad Line, at the mezzanine they’re pointed towards northbound and southbound trains, and on the platform they’re pointed to the local, express and Ridge trains.

Visual identity

SEPTA’s visual identity has got rather confused. The bright and contemporary image cultivated in recent years around the bright turquoise key card, the new map and publicity campaigns haven’t been followed by vehicles and signage. The system itself maintains a disjointed appearance wherein line colours dominate, and the corporate livery uses the most generic possible red, white and blue scheme (based upon a flag of some sort, I believe).

An eye-catching bright orange dominates the contemporary image. I propose to run with it, along with the key card’s blue-green. A single bright shade of orange shall emblematise SEPTA in a monocolor version of the logo plus stripes and flashes elsewhere, with blue-green liberally used in various shades.

This comes together to invoke the Philadelphia Transit Company’s historic green, orange and cream, along with the bluish greens seen throughout street furniture like station entrances and trolley shelters, not to mention the Eagles’ uniforms.

As for fonts, I propose Fira Sans be applied throughout. This contemporary typeface is a clean shaven version of the renowned FF Meta, which is used on recent concourse signage installed by the city. It offers excellent readability, with letter shapes easily distinguished, thus serving the aim of more accessible signage for all. Fira Sans also resembles Vialog, used by New Jersey Transit, thus being an excellent candidate for any regional harmonisation of wayfinding.

Line Identities

The present descriptive line names, while long-winded, are useful. It is immediately apparent where the Broad Street Line goes, and anyone that’s ever been beyond 69th Street can tell you where the Norristown High Speed Line goes.

A contemporary wayfinding scheme ought to retain these in a more concise form, alongside icons to replace the present indistinguishable pictograms. For these I propose to adopt line color bullets for rail lines, familiar to transit riders across North America, generally using single letters serving as an abbreviation of the line name:

BX Express and BR Ridge designations appear as service patterns once you’re down in the Broad Subway. Similarly, the 🅡 bullet points you to regional rail, while R-numbers (if SEPTA can manage to regularise through running) indicate the particular branch pairs. 🅛 is used for the Market Line as a homophone of ‘el’, yielding 🅜 for the Media Line (née Red Arrow).

One pictogram remains, representing the surface-subway lines with a simplified trolley, with each branch carrying a number as now. Upon redesign the bus network should yield the numbers 12 and 14 so that trolleys can gain a sequential block of numbers.

Bus Lines

Buses would benefit from the same descriptive line names – the 60 Allegheny, 79 Snyder, 52 Fifty-Second Street, and so on. With bus network changes, the opportunity should be taken to renumber more north-south lines on numbered streets like the 52, eking out further legibility.

Lines shall be represented with a rounded rectangular number bullet in shades of teal; a dark shade for frequent lines, a light shade for 30-minute lines and grey for hourly lines. This creates an intuitive color gradient and avoids the current pink, which is too close to the PATCO and Red Arrow colors.

Line Directions

Similar to the London Underground’s practice, lines shall have consistently applied cardinal directions and endpoint names. Signage shall give both, per the above image.

Endpoint names shall denote a place rather than a station. ‘Center City’ is the endpoint for lines terminating there plus inbound regional rail. The ‘Transportation Center’ suffix is dropped. Both the interurban to Norristown TC and the commuter rail to Elm Street are signed simply as ‘Norristown’; in the same way Media is simply ‘Media’. To avoid further confusion and costly signage changeovers, the endpoint of the southbound Broad local is given as South Philadelphia.

Signage

Recalling the consistency principle, signage should generally be modular in form, with a library containing signs pointing to each line in each direction, plus each station facility and so forth. Thus only exit locations, station names and similar need be added. This should help ensure that signage is reproduced properly.

And recalling information hierarchy, signage should follow the instructions Unimark gave to the NYC subway in their 1970 graphic standards manual: “The subway rider should be given only information at the point of decision. Never before. Never after.” That is, at the points where paths towards different lines or different exits diverge.

Wherever possible, directional signage on platforms towards transfers and exits should face the rider exiting the train, to enable the immediate decision to go left or right. Station facilities (toilets, tickets, information desks) shall be signed only at the relevant decision points within the lobby/concourse areas. Bus transfers shall be indicated at the point of decision between different exits: A bus pictogram to indicate all routes; route numbers where different routes require different exits.

By the same token (or Key card), accessible routes shall be signed at the point where they diverge from the route given on mainstream signage. At this decision point, a stairway icon shall accompany non-accessible routes, and another sign shall point to the ramp or elevator. The relevant lines/exits shall be appended only where multiple step-free paths exist.

Station signs shall be simplified in order to maximise font size of the most important information — the station name. Route and direction of travel are communicated on other signage; no longer will directional information be most visible to the rider standing on the opposite platform. An orange stripe will identify station signage and draw the eye, tying into corporate identity without logos taking up space.

Maps

All of this should be accompanied by a set of maps, echoing the design language of other wayfinding materials and emphasising clarity. Modified geography shall be used to preserve the layout of the city while giving more space to dense areas.

On the rapid transit and regional rail map I’ve produced, a common and mode-neutral design language is adopted. Line width indicates stop spacing, with thin lines representing local stop trolley segments as well as local bus lines on maps including those. A hollow line indicates low frequency rail service, designed to echo the lighter colors given to less frequent buses.

Note than I have added in the Boulevard Direct bus while removing the Girard trolley, thus consistently indicating rapid service but local service primarily running in mixed traffic —be it on rubber or on steel. The Girard Line might do well to be included on a Boston-Style map that includes key frequent bus lines (one can’t make all the maps in one’s spare time).

Akseptable Wayphinding

All if this is just one designer’s vision for SEPTA’s wayfinding design. Public input should shape a finished product, though this need not and should not be at the expense of a coherent visual identity. The above is a summary rather than a comprehensive style guide — a style guide mockup may follow if there’s demand for it.

It is, I hope, compelling look at what a new focus upon clear and consistent design could do to make SEPTA a more accessible system. Done right, it can also let SEPTA move forward with a more confident image; presenting itself as a dependable system and a competent custodian of public funds.

If you like this, and you’d like to enable me to keep advocating for good and accessible design on the SEPTA system and elsewhere, please buy me a coffee.

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