Posted by Chris on 12.07.2013

City wide pedestrian wayfinding is the hot new thing; ever since Legible London sprang onto the scene (and was shown to be effective), the world’s major metropolises are scrambling to create similar systems. New York have unveiled their Walk NYC system, a design which looks to be a synthesis of Legible London and the iconic Vignelli subway sign system. Other than possible charges of “borrowing” the design from London, it’s all very nice. They even have a bespoke version of Helvetica, called Helvetica DOT, which replaces all the square punctuation and tittles (real word) with round ones.

The Pentagram design is nice, clean, and strikes that fine balance between contemporary touches and effective design. It’s all pretty great, really, and anything which enables better pedestrian navigation is essential to the functioning of our increasingly dense urban environments. There’s been some good coverage of it around the web, and it’s likely more cities will seek to follow in London and New York’s footsteps.

We’re starting to see the first glimpses of the City of Sydney’s attempt to create the same style of system. Tenders were submitted in mid-2012, and some of the designs have appeared for general community review (always dangerous, but another story). While some consider it poor form to critique another’s work without fully understanding the process (undoubtedly complex), design stage (concept trending nascent), or restrictions (many, varied, and opaque), the state and quality of the design shown is concerning. Doubly so when compared to the quality and thoughtfulness of the London and NYC designs.

CoS Pylons Overview

It’s clear these are a continuation of the “legible” design approach: key pedestrian directional information, an overview map, and a detailed map. The design, with it’s tall and thin look and yellow pictogram, ties into Minale’s public transport system used throughout Sydney. The information pictogram selected for use is clear and direct.

While olive brown and yellow are colours you could choose for your sign system, I’m not convinced that it’s the best combination. It already looks dated, and that’s without having had years of wear and tear. Compare that to the crisp black used in the NYC and the royal blue throughout the London system. Brown says “Park Ranger” or “Orienteering Dad”, not “Bustling Metropolis” (thanks to a few short courses, I speak fluent brown).

Three options are shown for typeface selection; Rotis Sans, Frutiger Condensed, and Univers Condensed. All are perfectly … fine. Just fine. Not good, and definitely not great. These were all popular in the 90’s and early 00’s, but now look fairly staid. No custom Helvetica for Sydneysiders! Legibility on all is lower than I’d like to see for this sort of sign system.

Screen Shot 2013-07-12 at 3.06.29 PM

Apparently Myriad Pro is mandatory on all three options. Myriad, for those not in the know, is the default face for Adobe Illustrator. Selecting it here is the design equivalent of creating your annual report using nothing but 12pt Times New Roman. Or baking a plain muffin. While the designer may have looked at all the options and selected Myriad for it’s clean, neutral curves, it’s always going to look lazy. At least to other designers, anyway. On top of that, it’s not a great selection for sign applications, lacking some of the key characteristics we typically look for.

The directional part of signage is ugly. The arrangement of arrows in no way relate to the direction of travel, and the directions do not leap out at the viewer. The arrows selected for use on the directional signs are stock standard, and appear to bear no relationship to the typeface they live with, let alone the rest of the sign. The same goes for the coded letters, which appear to be set in Myriad as well.

The frustrating thing with this element is that the Legible London system has solved this design problem in a clear and logical way. Arrows and text align to the direction of travel, and stand out from the rest of the panel by using a bright, contrasting colour. Furthermore, the arrows actually work with the typeface, creating a smooth, delicious typographic blend. Similar statements are true for the WalkNYC design, although the visibility of the directional information is somewhat limited.

The maps appear to be unfinished, but what is there is concerning. There’s an explosion of colour, with reds, greens, yellows, and blues used throughout. This may be an attempt to create some vibrancy, but the overall effect is to limit the efficacy of the maps. There’s simply a sea of information, and with so much going on, there’s nowhere that the eye can be drawn to, and therefore little hierarchy to be found. I couldn’t tell you from looking at this design what was the most important destination, or even what the colours actually mean.

CoS Map Large

Look again at the Legible London and WalkNYC maps, both of which are beautifully and thoughtfully crafted. They are exercises in restraint and discoverability; a five star, minimalist dining experience compared to Sydney’s rissole and sausage buffet smorgasbord. London uses only seven colours (including white) to Sydney’s eleven, and does so sparingly. Key destinations are highlighted in bright yellow, while the mass of buildings is dropped back to plain light grey; the result is a map which is quick to scan for information and direction. I only wish their You Are Here indicator was more visible, à la WalkNYC. This is diametrically opposed to the approach taken by Sydney, where landmarks are in light grey and routes are in strong colours.

Legible London Map Large

And then there’s the pictograms.

The role of a pictogram is ostensibly to communicate a destination or facility using universally understood iconography. One can argue the efficacy of this approach, as there is some evidence to suggest that interpretations are not as universal as wayfinding designers would like them to be. However, the real goal is to enable people who don’t speak your language to understand basic messages and navigate semi-effectively. Why, then, do these pictograms actually require a key?

Without looking at the key, quickly tell me what (T) means.

It’s a train station. If you said taxi, or transport, or theatre, or even tram, you’re wrong. What about (L)? That’s “light rail” (Sydney’s version of a tram … uh, sure). (F) is for ferry, and (B) is for bus.

The confusing thing with this decision is that, for these items, there are some really excellent pictograms which are understood quite well. WalkNYC and Legible London use them to good effect, as does almost every other wayfinding system I’ve ever seen. I get that you might confuse the icon for light rail with the icon for train, but you’re not going to confuse a ferry with a bus, or a train with a taxi. It’s a hair tearing out decision for which I can see little justification. Good to know that “shopping” and “hotel” (or is that “hospital”?) survived the cut.

Sydney’s map is therefore a mass of information, given almost all the same level of importance. I’m left really wanting to know what that yellow means. It’s not sand—that entire area is a paved wonderland. Maybe it represents the lack of shade found throughout Circular Quay? Again, I’m not sure, and I know Sydney quite well. Are they saying that every square inch of Circular Quay is worth seeing?

Overview Map and QR

And, ohhh, the QR codes—these appear to be a marketers wet dream. Finally, an easy way for people to go to a website on their phone, because those phone keyboards are just so gosh darn hard to use. Except, think for a moment. Have you ever seen someone using these? Probably not. Instead of putting ugly robot vomit on your sign, consider arranging the information in such a way that it is visible and intelligible. The broader argument against QR codes is that they require access to specialised and expensive technology: smartphones. Information should be accessible and useable; QR codes create barriers to access and usability. Scrap them.

I like the way the directory separates key types of destinations into separate sets; this allows better parsing of the information displayed. However, it’s unclear on first examination that the codes refer to a grid reference on the maps. This could be made more explicit. It’s here, too, that Myriad’s disadvantages become clearer; the ragged and jumpy look of the numbers in the left column is the result of Myriad’s origins as a text face. This can be easily resolved, but points to the a lack of care given to the details of this design.

The design is, in almost all respects, average. It is missing any sense of risk, and there’s none of that frisson of seeing something truly beautiful or interesting. That Legible London, designed four years ago, looks more fresh than this system is an indictment on the quality of the Sydney design. The art of wayfinding design is marrying the functional requirements with aesthetic principles; the principles in use throughout the Sydney system are at best dated and at worst ugly. Sydney (or any city, really) deserves a sign system which enhances the public realm. It’s hard to see the current design doing that.

At a broader level, questions remain about how the aesthetics of systems such as WalkNYC and Legible London influence their usability. (As an aside, “optimal creativity within optimal usability” is a cute phrase to describe the drive behind most wayfinding systems. We spend an almost inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to make something both look good and work well, often something of a contradiction.) There are links between visual appeal and perceived usability, which may in turn change the number of people likely to actually use system. It cannot be too much of stretch to say the Legible London’s continued appeal and success is due in no small part to it’s attractiveness as a system, and that the risk with the Sydney system lies not within the principles which define a “Legible” system, but the manner in which they are applied.

That, in turn, brings us to the question of aesthetic relativity, a whole different ball game and an ongoing debate for another time. But, I will say that designers and non-designers alike have all reacted badly to this system when it is presented to them. It’s not even polarising; people just don’t like it. That doesn’t bode well, and I hope that the uncredited designers of this system take the opportunity to review and refresh their work.

The above analysis has been conducted to the same degree ID/Lab assess our own work; we openly critique each element in the design, and push to get the best solution to the given problem. I think peer review and critique have a strong place in developing effective and attractive designs, and as such are a necessary part of the design process.

Disclosure: ID/Lab tendered for this job and was unsuccessful. I have tried not to let that colour my analysis of the design as presented by the City of Sydney.



Andrew—thanks for the feedback. I agree with the "cut'n'paste" approach; it reeks of a solution developed for a different application and context. We find this occasionally in our work—you develop something, and gradually drop away the founding principles and ideas, until nothing of the original is left. What remains makes little sense, and is often confused in the design aesthetic it presents.



Nice piece of writing. This looks like a wayfinding aid, but it may not truly function as a wayfinding aid. I hope they user-test this. This would highlight many of the shortcomings. It must be said (even though one doesn't know the 'back story' here, and the brief requirements exactly): this is quite ugly and won't likely endear itself to users (hello graffitists). It simply looks like Legible London's maps have been cut'n paste onto Sydney's public transport signage with little care or consideration for effective communication. (Hopefully this is an early design yet to be refined)?