Is TTC signage in
“a state of good repair”?

by Joe Clark

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V1.0      2007.01.31

Back to TTC signage page

Special note to Tufte ideologues

This is a slideshow of actual slides – that is, photographs – with a few words at the beginning of each. I know PowerPoint corrupts absolutely, as I have read Eddie Tufte on the topic and agree with him. However, this is not an inappropriate use of the slideshow format and we are not reducing the information flow to a trickle compared to other methods. This is the best method.

Designers long ago began pointing out that the TTC uses a jumble of typefaces, but even a casual visitor will notice indications that signage in the TTC has recently slipped to seriously dysfunctional levels. In some stations you come upon hand-lettered signs pasted on pillars by TTC employees: Obviously they’ve been hounded for directions by baffled riders, have given up waiting for assistance from the signmakers at head office and have taken matters into their own hands. Their sloppy signage makes the whole system look seedy, like a store that’s about to go bankrupt.

That isn’t an original quote from 2007. It’s from Toronto Life in November 1994.

Things couldn’t still be that bad 13 years later, could they?

† “Can’t you read the signs? Wayfinding, the art of telling people where to go, is failing miserably in Maze City,” Robert “Wedgie” Fulford, Toronto Life, November 1994, pp. 45–48.

What’s the problem?

Aren’t the newer signs better?

Are signs really that big a deal?

Fonts are not decoration

(For further reading, look at an investigation [PDF] my business partner and I did for GO Transit.)

If it doesn’t run on wheels, it must be a frill

The good news first

The old subway signs, including the name of most stations and many directional signs in most stations, are beautiful, apparently functional, and a unique treasure. And they’ve been durable, lasting decades of daily use. So let’s not touch those.

Now the bad news.

There are too many signs

Not only are there too many signs in subway stations, sometimes overlapping or conflicting –

One hanging and one wall-mounted sign both say To Subway and Retail Concourse, among other things

– a typical collector’s booth has more than a dozen signs (as high as 17 in some cases).

Collector booth is festooned with printed and handmade signs

Quick: Which sign do you read first? (Don’t you just ignore all of them?)

Signs are haphazard

Signs are posted pretty much at random, and there’s no such thing as too many copies of the same sign.

Pole is festooned with four taped-up copies of a sign reading 90 Vaughan

Nothing matches

Let’s take it as a given that the old mid-century signs will stay. They won’t match any newer signs. But that means there should really be two kinds of signs in the system – one old design and one new design.

In fact, there are probably a dozen kinds of signage in the system.

Recent and brand-new signs don’t match

The system has been built up piecemeal over time, and never under informed supervision. So you get subway stations that don’t even use the old mid-century font, then also post a TTC ad, then also install garbage cans, all using different fonts and formats.

DUNDAS station is labelled in Univers, with framed advertisement on a wall and three garbage cans labelled in Futura Condensed

Even adjacent signs don’t match.

Two signs for LOST ARTICLES and LOST ARTICLES OFFICE use different fonts and sit next to each other

Fonts don’t match, either

One variation of this problem is typefaces. The TTC cannot match the fonts, or even the arrows, on adjacent subway pillars –

Two columns have signs reading WESTBOUND ← and EASTBOUND → in different fonts

– or on two signs on opposite sides of the same platform.

Two signs with green lines along the top reading St George in white type on black

(This isn’t even the right font according to the TTC “sign manual.” And they couldn’t even get that incorrect font right – look at the g in the upper “George.”)

Attempted colour-coding doesn’t work

Some signs have tiny lines in the colours of each subway branch (yellow, green, blue, and, for some reason, pink). The lines are so subtle they look like decoration or dividers of some kind.

Sign has two rows of type and pictograms separated by green line

Bus and Wheel-Trans signs seem to be using colour-coding, too

Does this sign mean the bus is on the red subway line?

Black sign with red line across top reads 31 Greenwood Southbound

Does this sign tell us that Wheel-Trans stops are on the blue subway line?

Wheel-Trans sign has top third in black with white type, bottom two-thirds in blue with white type

You can’t tell what’s a sign and what’s an ad

Intrusive advertising competes with signage –

Exit sign sits amid a sea of giant advertising copy

– or overwhelms signage to the point where you can barely notice the sign.

Wall shows COLLEGE and EXIT → signs and billboard copy reading AFRICA. AVAILABLE IN CANADA

There are too many handmade signs

If TTC staff have to scribble out a sign on a piece of cardboard, then the whole system isn’t working.

Handwritten sign headlined WRONG SIDE?

Would you really trust a handwritten sign?

Signs are falling apart

Signs, especially handmade ones, get torn or damaged, but stay in place.

Printed Customer Notice is torn at the bottom left corner

(The route diversion on this sign ended in November 2006. Many copies of that sign were still in place two months later.)

Signs are too wordy and cluttered

There is no effort to reduce the words on a sign to a bare minimum. That’s true for both temporary and permanent signs.

Ceiling-mounted sign reads Additional Stairs and Escalators to Bloor/Danforth Subway At East End of Mezzanine

Quick: What’s a mezzanine, and where is its east end?

Signs are patronizing

Signs attached to every door on some trains tell us to be safe and considerate. And they use yet another font to tell us that.


These signs block many people’s view through the doors. Again: There’s no such thing as too many signs.

Signs are misspelled

Occasionally, signs cannot even get the spelling right.

Sign reads Pedestrians Yeild to Vehicles

(This sign was eventually corrected.)

The TTC ignored a redesign in 1994

In the early ’90s, the TTC hired renowned graphic designer Paul Arthur (1924–2001) to develop a new signage system. A prototype was installed at St. George station.

TTC’s own testing showed that the new signs worked at least as well as the old ones for most riders. They worked better for riders with visual impairments, those who didn’t speak English well, and those with low literacy.

That new system, developed at a reported cost of $250,000, was simply ignored.

Oh, except that the TTC could not even get its act together enough to remove the prototype signs from St. George. They’re still there 14 years later.

Wall with original ST. GEORGE inscription and green ST GEORGE banner with icon along the top

New signs don’t work

For the Sheppard subway, TTC’s nondesigners threw together a “standard” for new signage. It looks just fine, but actually it isn’t. It’s derivative and it doesn’t perform well.

The new signs copy New York’s

Surely by coincidence, the Sheppard signs look like a copy of the New York subway signage, or the kind of copy that would result if you only had a blurry photograph to start with.

Mockups of New York subway signage, with line numbers and letters in coloured circles

(From the eponymous Leila and Massimo Vignelli: Design Is One, 2004)

New York’s subway signage was designed by Massimo Vignelli in 1966, a time when much less was known about reading, accessibility, or signage fonts.

New York’s signage has its own problems

For critiques of New York subways, look at “Troubling Signs” (PDF) by PCAC.

And the TTC “signage manual” instructs staff to send font files to whatever printing company is being used, a clear case of copyright infringement.

Fonts on new signs have confusable letter shapes

Helvetica, Swiss 721, and Akzidenz are all grotesk sansserifs in which the letters are made up of almost geometric shapes – perfectly straight lines with right-angle corners, near-perfect circles, and regular angles of diagonals.

As such, all the classic confusable letters really are confusable, including Ili1, eas, and numerals.

Sign with pink line across the top reads Bessarlon

(Did you notice the preceding sign said Bessarlon, not Bessarion? Letters like i and l are confusable in that font, especially when illuminated or backlit.)

Letters are spaced too close together

Because TTC staff are nondesigners who don’t understand signage and readability, there are no special instructions on spacing out the letters on signs. That means they glow together (halate), particularly when illuminated.

If you were caught in a subway fire, would you want to run toward an illegible blob of glowing letters?

New York subway lines are not like Toronto’s

Vignelli’s design for the New York subway relies on subdividing each sign into halves, quarters, and eighths, which works well for New York’s many subway lines, named with a single letter or number each.

It doesn’t work at all with a system whose lines are almost never named and use up to three words per name (Yonge-University-Spadina).

It also doesn’t work with station names that range from three characters (Bay) to 18 (Scarborough Centre).

The new signs were never tested

Paul Arthur’s sign prototype was tested with subway users. The Sheppard-style signs weren’t.

Conclusion: TTC signage is not in a “state of good repair”

TTC signage was thrown together piecemeal by nonexperts over a period of 50 years. In a single case, those nonexperts did a good job (the original mid-century signage). In other cases, the results have been terrible.

The TTC has shown an antipathy toward any kind of good design. Perhaps the male-dominated culture at the TTC considers “design” the same as “decoration” and thinks it is too girly for a manly transit system. Whatever the reason, to ignore design means that the TTC wasted a reported $250,000 on a well-researched, well-tested signage system that was never implemented. Nor did anyone ever get around to removing those prototype signs.

TTC engineers need to accept that signage is not an add-on and requires expert guidance.

How do we fix it?

An inventory of TTC signage would be a good place to start. What kinds of signs are there, in what numbers?

Then we need an evaluation of what other cities have done in the last 10 years with transit signage. Nothing from the distant past, please, like New York City; it just isn’t applicable.

Ultimately we’ll need a completely new set of signs to replace everything that isn’t the original mid-century signage. More importantly, we’ll need training of staff so that the system will actually be maintained for years to come. A typical design firm won’t be able to train in-house staff, nor would they want to pass up years of steady income from actually producing the signs.

How do we pay for it?

Most of the following proposals do not involve any kind of budget increase, merely a reallocation of existing revenue (sometimes foregone revenue).

Cancel the Toronto Community Foundation misadventures

Nobody but the Toronto Community Foundation and a few dowagers in mink stoles really wants the Museum station makeover. It’s a waste of money, and signage will take a hit in any such renovation. (Quick: What kind of signs match an Egyptian sarcophagus? They would have to “match,” wouldn’t they?)

If the TTC and the Foundation are intent on wasting that much money, up the budget and use that increase to fund and implement signage improvements across the system.

Keep watching for updates

That’s all for this slideshow. Keep watching the TTC signage page for other documents, including a printable PDF of the booklet I gave the TTC after my presentation on 2007.01.31.

Copyright © Joe Clark 2007. All rights reserved.