When we think of information design in terms of public transportation, the first name that comes to mind is Massimo Vignelli, for his 1972 redesign of the New York City subway map that focused on clarity of information. Though not well received by New Yorkers because it sacrificed geographic accuracy for clarity in the subway routes, Vignelli’s intentionality behind the redesign is something to be commended and examined.
However, a route map isn’t the only component involved in successful information design as it relates to the entire process of riding the metro. When I spent time in Europe this summer, I found myself comparing the metro systems in each of the cities I visited and eventually analyzing the shortcomings and strengths in them – just because I have an incredibly analytical mind. Thinking back, these are some of the things I valued in the information systems I encountered.
1. The Map: I found myself wanting a balance between Vignelli’s simplified map and an accurate geographic map. In cities I was unfamiliar with, it was important to have some geographic reference, but I didn’t need all the details of each and every street above ground. I remember being particularly impressed with Barcelona’s map.
2. The signage: Almost all cities handled signage in the stations the same: each line had its own bright color, and the direction of the line would be determined by the last stop on each end of the line. Then there would be secondary signs that listed each remaining stop in that direction, making it a pretty quick process to determine which direction you needed to ride. The most important thing for this information was the consistent use of color – it made it easier to quickly assess the information. The only city I encountered that handled this differently was Milan, because some metro stations had regional trains going through them as well. Their labeling wasn’t specific enough, and caused problems in my navigation.
3. The ride: The most important (and most varied) information design I encountered was how stops are announced to passengers. In some cities, stops were only announced verbally. In others, there were indicator lights above the doors that showed which stations had already been passed, and which were coming. Others had a screen that showed the name of the stop. And some had a combination of these features. The metros I felt most comfortable on used at least two of these designs, especially if I didn’t speak the language in that country. Paris and Madrid’s metros stand out to me for this reason.