I’m sure most cities have been branded up at some point, if only to attract tourists and
day-trippers, yet when I try to think of a memorable city brand the only one that automatically
jumps to mind is that of Milton Glaser’s I Heart NY. This got me to thinking, how do most
people identify a city? Personally I would most definitely associate famous landmarks, people
and possibly the weather too with a city, Barcelona has always been sunny when I’ve visited!
But I have to say, and this may only be my nerdy self, that the local transport network normally
features in my head when thinking of a city, this does of course depend on how aesthetically
pleasing their system looks (clearly some are more memorable than others), but I guess the
point I’m making is that more often than not the most visible identity of a city is that of its
With our work at Maynard we understand the importance of developing a clear wayfinding
strategy and a graphically comprehensible sign system, but we also feel that there is real
importance to the underlying vision of a system. What’s the story behind it, why use that
certain font and colour palette, does it say enough of the place it’s signing, does it express
the essence of the city?
Transport systems are brands, they have an identity and a consistent language that is
often expressed throughout their system from the way the maps look, to the uniforms
the staff wear, to the shapes of the vehicles. They have to constantly market their service.
The public may not always pay attention to such details, they may not care if the TfL
worker making announcements on the Northbound Bakerloo line platform has roundels
on his customised boots (very cool!) or that the roundel was born from a vision of combining
art and functional architecture, but if these details didn’t exist and hadn’t filtered down then
what would we end up with? A ramshackle of a network? A system without structure? Don’t
get me wrong, I know that to some these details are frivolous, that value & efficiency is what
people care most about public transport, but from a creative point of view the most memorable
transport networks out there are ones that have given themselves a strong identity, consider
these details and value the importance of brand. As a Londoner I’m certainly proud of the
iconic status that TfL has created. The roundel, recently celebrating 150 years, is one of the
most iconic symbols of London and possibly of a transport system. People recognise it
instantly, helping them to navigate their way around a densely populated metropolis.
When you visit a new city this is what you want to see. A visibly clear and identifiable sign that
lets you know, here it is, here is the metro, here is your bus stop, you have arrived! Identification
signs provide the first impression, they are visual markers, appearing at the beginning and end
of a journey. They express a place’s personality and character, setting the tone for how the whole
network is seen. A point to add here is that the identifier doesn’t just have to be in the form of
graphic mark, it could be expressed through the architecture and product language of the
sign or all three.
So which cities do this well? Paris, New York, London and Hong Kong to name but a few.
New York certainly has a recognisable graphic style and one that suits the city. Bold and symbolic,
the whole graphic system is the identity, unapologetically using helvetica, white on black with pop
colours to emphasize routes, a glorious graphic style that influences over and over again. It may
not be perfect but if you were to show it someone who had never even stepped foot in New York
they would probably recognise it as the ‘New York subway system’, that’s how well known it is.
Paris is another example of expressing a representative style. Noted for its density within the city
limits and its uniform architecture influenced by Art Nouveau, there’s something utterly beguiling
about all those metro signs. The New York Modern Art Museum bought the disused wrought-iron
railings from a Metro entrance 40 years ago and displays them as a pioneering and beautiful
example of art nouveau. Even the newer signs have a recognisable style to them that evokes
the more elaborate style of the latter day signs. Chic and ‘oh so continental’, these signs could
only ever suit the Parisian cityscape.
All these transport systems are big players, they are what people will refer to time and time again
when working on projects like these. Maybe some of the styles aren’t everyones cup of tea, but
for a city and a transport system it’s essential that they not only offer a solid wayfinding system,
but one that expresses character and communicates identity. After all there will always been some
people out there who pay attention to these details and others that like it but just don’t know why.