Going places with typography

Everyone who knows me at all knows I’m a fan of a good typeface (and a nice bottle of wine, and a pretty pair of shoes). Less common knowledge is my fondness for public transit.

Sure, it’s often dirty, loud, crowded, and outmoded. Oftentimes it’s a good way to run into people you’d rather avoid. But it’s an excellent measure of the vitality of a city—its public transit system is the lifeblood of its “common” people, and a reflection of how it treats them. Of course, the city in which I live has one of the most miserable public transit systems I’ve come across. I sold my little Honda Civic just before I left for five weeks in eastern Europe last summer, and I’ve been struggling to get by without it ever since. (Winter’s going to be fun.)

A year ago I found cheap airfare to Mexico, and have since been taking off on a regular basis, traveling about and becoming a bit of a digital nomad (which is another story entirely). I’ve been lucky to do a decent bit of traveling since then, and I’ve taken buses, trains, subways, ferries, and trams in various cities across nine different countries, most of which spoke languages unintelligible to me. Given the language barrier, the fact that I was almost always solo, and the fact that I can get lost in a three-foot-square glass bubble, I started paying a lot of attention to wayfaring signage.

Malostranská station in Praha
Malostranská station in Praha

I received an email this morning about Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story, which looks like a gorgeous book. NYC’s subway system is definitely known for its use of Helvetica, which makes it easy to spot a subway entrance on a crowded street (though I’ve very infrequently found this to be of great difficulty, with the exception of Rome, whose Metro symbol looked like a McDonald’s, which littered Italy in the same ubiquitous way you find Tim Horton’s here). However, when I was there, I was more interested in the typefaces used to display the station names set in mosaic tiles in the wall, which seemed to be more a relic of the system’s past than of any utilitarian value.

I think it’s these decorative elements, mixed with the more strictly “Oh, God, where am I?” usefulness of the actual signage, that interests me about transit systems. In Boston, I saw an advertisement for Coraline that was installed in pieces to display in the window as the train passed (thanks, YouTube! How did we ever survive without you?), making clever use of the rather fragmented movement of the car. I didn’t take the metro much in Budapest, but when I went to the Turkish baths, I found a gorgeous yellow line station full of ornate columns and interesting textures. (Unfortunately, my camera was out of film, but here’s an image of another well-restored station.) Prague had probably my favourite system—the trains may have been crowded, but they were intensely simple for a tourist to get around in. Trains from the same line would arrive on either side of the platform, above which hung a great big colour-coded sign that indicated where you were, and which stops either train would service from there. Once you hopped on, there were maps of the subway line everywhere, with little diagrams of major monuments at the stops. The present stop and next stop would be announced via an audible loudspeaker at each stop—not all that useful if Czech sounds like Wookie to you—and displayed on a visible LCD screen. It was nearly impossible to get lost, and pretty to boot.

Wayfaring is one of those things where the importance of good design becomes very evident—do it well and everyone’s happy; do it badly and chaos ensues. What are some examples of good, bad, or beautiful signage you’ve seen in public places?

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