Finding a ‘better way’

The directional signs in the Toronto subway system are a mess. Walk down to the platform at Union station and you’ll find signs handwritten in marker on white cardboard taped to the columns telling you which train is which. Or transfer from the north-south to east-west lines at Yonge and Bloor and you’ll find this mouthful overhead between two sets of staircases: "Additional Stairs and Escalators to Bloor/Danforth Subway at East End of Mezzanine" – 13 words to tell you what is obvious to anyone with good vision. Go down one of those staircases and you’ll find that the directional signs aren’t a graphical match – signs on some columns are in upper- and lowercase on a matte finish, while those on adjacent columns are in uppercase only and are shiny. Not even the arrows on the signs match.

Torontonians have gotten as used to this outdated signage as they have to the outdated subway trains themselves (the system opened March 30, 1954), but there is graphical light at the end of the subway tunnel. The Toronto Transit Commission has given over half of St. George station to a prototype of a new wayfinding system as part of a projected $8.5 million overhaul of interior and exterior signs in the subway network. Designed by renowned Toronto pictogram and wayfinding authority Paul Arthur, the new signage aims to be easily comprehensible to the majority of TTC riders, including illiterates, children, and people with moderate visual impairments.

The first change riders will notice are the signs outside subway stations, which will now have multiple faces for 360° viewing and will display the station name along with a unique icon intended to help those who cannot read the station name. St. George, for example, is symbolized by a lion, at least in the prototype stage. These icons won’t be imposed on subway users willy-nilly; they are to be developed station-by-station with community input. “The intention is to present the communities with some ideas," Paul Arthur explains, “and say, ‘What of these do you like? And if you don’t like any, tell us you don’t like any,’ so that the TTC for the first time will be able to go out to the communities it serves and say, ‘Tell us what you would like.’ ” Consultations will consist largely of public meetings, with proposed icons being displayed in the stations themselves.

Icons can be arrived at through various means, Arthur says. A rebus or rhyme might work with Chester station, which could be symbolized by a jester (though people might interpret that as “joker”), or a wishing well for Wellesley. Topography or geographical allusion might work elsewhere – a castle for Dupont (symbolizing nearby Casa Loma), an oak tree for High Park, perhaps a shopping bag for Yorkdale. Historical references – such as the professions of the people the stations are named after – are also possible, albeit obscure. Or an etymology could be used – Spadina, for example, is an aboriginal word, so some acceptable native icon could be used.

In the new system, wherever you find a station icon you’ll find the station name too, and outside signs will now tell you if buses and/or streetcars are available within that station. But in a break from former practice, Arthur’s sign system will not differentiate the various forms of surface transit on the principle that riders don’t care if it is a bus or streetcar that will take them where they’re going. The St. George prototype refers to subways as “rapid transit” and to everything else as “transit” (along with an icon that mixes the look of a bus and a streetcar). “We went through an enormous number of names before we arrived at ‘transit’ and ‘rapid transit,’ ” Arthur says. Nixed were options along the lines of fast (subway) and slow (surface) transit or the use of an icon without a word. “Transit” and “rapid transit” may ultimately be changed (since they share the word transit, they’re easy to confuse) to something like “subway” and “surface transit” based on the results of TTC rider surveys currently being conducted.

Down in the stations themselves, Arthur’s aim is to give you all the information you need to choose the necessary platform well before you reach that platform. “You have no reason to be down on that platform if you don’t know where you’re going,” he declares. Subway lines will no longer go by names (and where else can you find single lines with multiple names, like Yonge-University-Spadina or Bloor-Danforth?) but will be numbered and colour-coded, with the name of the colour spelled out on most signs to accommodate colour-blind people. Signs at the top or bottom of staircases will show you the colour and number of the subway line, what the next stop is, and what direction the line runs in – information that’s currently scattered on signs at different places.

All signs will use standardized typography, namely the Gill Sans font in uppercase for station names and EXIT signs and upper- and lowercase elsewhere. Arthur chose Gill Sans to match the fonts cut into the subway walls, but at least three discernible fonts are actually used for that function – Univers (e.g., at Union), Helvetica (at North York Centre), and a font similar to Bernhard Gothic most everywhere else. But even if it doesn’t “match" per se, Gill Sans is classy and readable and is respected by discerning graphic designers.

Inside signs will all be situated at eye level where possible, but that makes them vulnerable to attack by ne’er-do-wells with penknives. “We have not solved the vandalism problem,” Arthur admits. “If we had all the money in the world like the City of Toronto has all the money in the world for that damn fool PATH system, we would use vitreous enamel on steel [to construct the signs], than which nothing is more expensive, and it will last for a thousand years.” A final vandalproof design has yet to be decided upon.

However, signs will now be numbered in a TTC inventory and will fit into off-the-shelf enclosures, making them easy to re-order and lowering the chance that TTC petit fonctionnaires, as Arthur calls them, will decide that what a station really needs to replace a vandalized sign is one the fonctionnaires designed and manufactured themselves.

Indeed, this is one of the risks of the TTC’s approach to the redesign: Apart from installing the St. George prototype, Arthur has been hired only to produce a “design intent” – in other words, he was hired to brainstorm. It is TTC managers and outside consultants who will be doing the actual composition and installation of signage. Let’s hope these people are better at following expert instructions than they are at coming up with their own ideas.


Arthur’s wayfinding design for the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) was erected in half of St. George station for more than six months, then allowed to decay, then finally decommissioned entirely, except for the lighted outdoor sign with its lion icon symbolizing St. George. The TTC has since completely ignored the lessons of Arthur’s design and whipped up its own signs featuring white Helvetica Bold on a black ground with a wee strip of colour at the top to suggest (not indicate) the line you’re on. This, of course, is exactly what you’d expect from the jumped-up motormen who run the Toronto Transit Commission, who see anything related to writing, “design,” or art as insufferably twee and beneath their dignity. (“Signs? Oh, hell. I never have a problem with the signs... I’ll have my girl type up something.”) 400,000 Toronto tax dollars well spent.