A Response to SEPTA’s Wayfinding Master Plan

After some months of hard work, the small team working on SEPTA’s Wayfinding Master Plan has come out with a set of recommendations for the future of wayfinding on the system. The wayfinding signage and maps proposed are clear, consistent, a huge improvement on the status quo. The use of letter designations for rail lines and ‘SEPTA Metro’ for the rapid transit and frequent regional rail network as a whole is a brilliant innovation.

There are some unfortunate shortcomings though, and I’m here to nitpick because nitpicking is important when it comes to getting a project of such scale and importance right. Let’s get to them, in no particular order.

Typography

The wayfinding plan proposes Roboto, which is notable for not being a signage typeface. It’s a text face for screens and performs decently on legibility for its intended use, but it wasn’t made for large sizes or printed materials. It also has common legibility shortcomings other typefaces eliminate, like the upper case I and lower case L looking almost the same.

While, as the plan notes, it is unique among transit agencies, it’s utterly ubiquitous everywhere else. It’s the font of the Android system, like 50% of unnecessary workplace communication, and a good chunk of memes. It’s also just ugly.

One alternative is to adopt a true signage typeface, of which Vialog is one of the best, and already used by NJ Transit and on some signage installed by Philadelphia city. It does require licensing though, and the plan indicates a preference for an open source typeface.

So, I went and began developing a custom typeface named Cynwyd, based on Public Sans but with an increased x-height and better letter differentiation for optimal legibility. It’s used on all the renderings in this piece. Other open source options superior to Roboto would be Atkinson Hyperlegible or Source Sans.

The Colour Block Signs

Left: The Wayfinding Master Plan proposal. Right: My proposal

All wayfinding signs are proposed to involve white text on the line colour background. This is terrible for readability; you can get away with it for a line number/letter bullet but not for longer blocks of text. It also means the line bullets fail to stand out, distinguished only by a white border. Ironically the inverted line colour-on-white bullets of infrequent service patterns stand out as if they were more important. While the abundance of colour can help at a glance when finding a line in the first place, it’s certainly unnecessary to be bathed in a line’s colour when you’re already on the platform.

I propose instead that signs are mainly white-on-black. Wayfinding signage particular to a line would having a line colour stripe at the top in the style of London Underground signage, so the colour would remain just visually prominent enough in combination with the line bullets.

The Arrows

Two small but important points on arrows, no pun intended. First, arrows should be longer than they are tall to clearly impart directionality. The Sign Design Society’s guide advises the ISO 7001 arrow is used; on my illustrations I’ve used a version of the Fira Sans arrow modified to match the ISO 7001 proportions but with a lighter weight.

Second, the master plan’s illustrations show a lot of diagonal arrows. These are widely avoided, and discouraged by the Sign Design Guide because of their ambiguity. Arrows should instead point only up if one needs to continue ahead, or left or right if one needs to turn either way right now.

Relatedly, for clarity relevant information and icons should always go next to the arrow rather than below it; compare the location of the exit sign on the renderings above.

Buses

Left: The Wayfinding Master Plan proposal. Right: My proposal

The consistent inclusion of specific bus routes on signage is extremely useful. SEPTA’s proposal lists routes in a white block, separated by dots. This is jarring alongside other signage, looking as if someone stuck a sheet of paper up there. It’s inconsistent with another part of the wayfinding plan that proposes bus routes get round route number bullets as they do now. And consistency is what it’s all about!

I propose that a bus icon be used in a white square, to match the square letter bullets of the rail lines, followed by each route being listed in the round bullet format. The bullets should reflect the frequency-based colour scheme used elsewhere — presently red, teal and grey, but as a similar pink represents PATCO a darker teal might want to take its place.

Some other things

The map released as the first element of the project has absolutely tiny station names, much too small for any print context and requiring a whole lot of zooming and panning in digital formats. Granted, it’s difficult to fit consistently large type onto a map of a complex network. If only the author of this piece were skilled at exactly that, she might be able to help!

There’s no cause for ever running multiple service patterns on Market-Frankford or Girard, so it’s worth removing a layer of complexity and making those simply the L and G respectively. There are presently L and G buses, but the better answer would be to change those to numbers in advance of the bus system redesign if necessary.

If the plan to rebrand the Regional Rail as the Silver Line remains, and it ought to because it’s a good branding, then that ought to be rolled out at this point.

Finally, let’s hope that the lovely team working on wayfinding can also persuade other parts of the organisation to adopt the final set of graphic standards it produces, so for the first time in its history SEPTA might actually present itself as a competent organisation through a unified brand image. Let me dream.

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