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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Pulling TTC attention towards its signs

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Crossposted to Transit Toronto.

Design critic and accessibility advocate Joe Clark brings to our attention pressing issues regarding signage on the Toronto Transit Commission. Plans are currently underway to clean up and update a number of the stations on Toronto’s subway network, including St. George and Pape. These stations and others have been identified as requiring upgrades, to clean up their appearance and improve passenger experience.

Clark doesn’t oppose these changes, but is concerned about two issues: preservation and good wayfinding design. In particular, the cleanup of St. George station advocates the removal of a wayfinding experiment made in 1994 when noted graphic designer Paul Arthur was brought in to brainstorm a new signage system for the TTC. Despite spending over $400,000 on this test, the TTC could not commit the $8 million required to retrofit the system, and St. George’s signs were left to decay.

Clark seeks to preserve this aspect of Arthur’s legacy by ensuring that, if Arthur’s signs are to be removed, they not be removed and destroyed. Likewise, as renovations to Pape station and Eglinton station threaten to remove distinctive signs and tiles that are over forty years old, Clark wishes to see these distinctive features of these subway stations preserved. Already, he argues, too much of Toronto’s original subway design has been forgotten and covered over in the name of progress.

In addition to calling for the preservation of original station material, Clark sees the upcoming renovations to Pape station as an opportunity to design a proper wayfinding system for the TTC. What exists now is a hodgepodge of material, including original station signs (showing their effectiveness by sticking around for over fifty years) to corruptions of Paul Arthur’s designs, to ugly and badly designed temporary signs, and even handwritten signs. Clark doesn’t advocate any particular solution; even returning to Paul Arthur’s design. He simply believes that the look, feel and accessibility of the system can be improved if the TTC took some time designing a proper signage system, testing it, and implementing it.

He has created a website to this effect and hopes to spark discussion. If you feel that the TTC needs to preserve more of its subway heritage, or that needs to improve the way it communicates to its passengers through its signs, Clark asks that you write to the TTC. Clark hopes that the issue can be put on the agenda at the July meeting of the commission, but that can only happen if the TTC’s passengers take an interest. So, if you feel strongly about this issue, write a polite note to the TTC and ask them to give this issue the attention it deserves.

UPDATE: There’s now a Facebook group called Save TTC Signs for those interested.

photo courtesy Joe Clark



  1. TTC signage is a ridiculous embarassment on the image of the system to its users and even moreso to the visitors we have to the city. I cannot think of any other transit system I have been on where the wayfinding system is so haphazard and unorganized… the mish-mashing of three different styles (four, if you count handwritten ones) causes a chaotic mess that in the end deteriorates the look of the system and in many ways, ugly.

    The new signage standard, as Joe states, is not any better. I agree. Luckily, it won’t be very difficult to change that. The majority of the “new” signage is printed on vinyl and stuck onto the the plastic sheeting, therefore, a new design would be relatively simple to implement… but now if we can only get a new design…

    Spacing — perhaps we should have a blog-competition to showcase ideas and designs for new TTC signage, much like the TTC website one a few months back?

  2. Laurence, I take your point, but (a) let’s not do any more work for free for billion-dollar public institutions and (b) why don’t we get this past a design discussion and start talking numbers, research, testing?

  3. As I read this entry on the renovation of some of the existing subway stations and how it should be dealt with some ideas of mine come to mind. First off, Downsview subway station in many ways resembles what a modern subway station in Toronto should look like. The station has lots of open space and few visual barriers. Natural light is allowed to enter through various escalator portals and skylights. One only needs to see the kind of innovative work that has been done in Europe or on the Jubilee line extension in London England to get a better sense. In any regard St. George station should be given the necessary treatment to ensure more efficient passenger flow and cleaner presentation. This would include extra stairways, escalators, wider platforms and new finishing. Wider platforms are definitely a must at St. George and Yonge as their unusually narrow platform width allows for congestion and unsafe navigation during peak periods of the day. If , however, the public cannot agree on cosmetics, they can definitely agree on functionality. And as an extra provision, consideration for lengthening the platforms to accomodate longer trains for future growth should be made.

  4. I think it’s important that *all* TTC and City renovation projects of any sort should include a preservation statement which identifies any unique artifacts and takes steps to record them – it should not take a citizen having to scour every single report to find where TTC may be taking the wrecking ball to something historical. The criteria for what is historical should be for historians and not Councillors or Staff. Does Toronto have a City Historian? If not, can we fire all these fairness commissioners and skip the appointment of a City Poet Laureate for a year and so on and find the cash to hire one? And build a Museum of Toronto at the Gardens while we’re at it?

    New signage: As we know so far (we haven’t seen anything come of the TTC website thing yet) if something isn’t tendered out the City/TTC doesn’t want to know.

    The only thing Joe – like Rami Tabello after MLS you’ve gone after the TTC with a cudgel (including mentioning their use of what you describe as a pirated font) and I’m thinking for that alone there might be some closed ears in the Commission. But since I personally like a robust method of citizen engagement I’m writing that email 🙂

  5. I’d like to see the TTC produce standardized graphics for businesses to use in their print and web advertising to promote their proximity to a station. A business located near Sherbourne station could slap the Sherbourne logo onto all their promo materials.

    I’ve seen this at work in other cities – it definitely helps to fit transit into your mental map of a city when there’s a standard graphic to watch out for all over.

  6. No, I’ve been handing TTC and the public a great deal of information since January. I’ve publicly and privately informed TTC that the statement in its current sign manual that font files are to be transferred to printing companies is copyright infringement. (It is.)

    I’ve also explained that they are using a pirated version of the Helvetica typeface. In other contexts (I didn’t feel I had to go into that much detail in the Save TTC Signs campaign), I explained that typeface designs are copyrightable in Europe but not here. Nonetheless, Bitstream Swiss 721 is a pirated copy of Helvetica. TTC is using it because it came free with CorelDraw!

    (Ironically, the Bitstream clone fonts from the 1980s are often historically accurate and can be better than genuine licensed fonts from the same era. But that was a long time ago.)

    This isn’t a cudgel. I’ve gone out of my way to be entertaining and light-hearted with TTC staff and Commissioners. But they can’t just send around copyrighted font files. Still, that is a minor issue in the grand scheme of things.

  7. Fin’s idea is a good one and should be doable in a way that would avoid infringing any font maker’s copyright. Doesn’t the TTC have clear rights to the station name font it created?

    If I remember correctly, in Montreal it’s very common to see ads in newspapers, the Yellow Pages, etc. where the official down arrow Metro symbol appears with the nearest station name. Here it could be the background of the TTC logo (the shield), with the station name in the TTC station name font on the horizontal bar.

    It does get more complex for places that are close to good surface transit (e.g. what does a business at the intersection of College & Bathurst use?), and it does require the TTC to release/license some of its graphic design, but it seems like a good way to encourage people to take transit.

  8. Fin’s idea might be an interesting one to consider once we take care of more important business, like (1) saving the existing signs, and (2) getting the TTC to implement a usable signage standard. Let’s worry about unneeded frippery later.

  9. Love this campaign! If there is one easy thing, at very little cost, that the TTC can do to shape up its image is to respect and perserve historical signage. Its a defining feature that is etched into the memories of millions of people.

  10. when will pape gets its elevators? a wheelchair bound friend of mine living along don mills keeps asking me this.

  11. Thickslab, you haven’t convinced me that my suggestion is “unneeded frippery” but you HAVE convinced me to participate in other initiatives where I’ll be treated with more respect. Some people are weird on the internet, you’d never say that to my face if I was contributing an idea. Good luck with your project guys.

  12. I’ve also seen Fin’s great idea in Montreal, where the STM actually has easily downloadable images for Metro stations as well as buses on its website explicitly for the use in posters and ads.

    It wouldn’t take much to do here.

    In Toronto, one would only need the now-standard subway train, streetcar and bus logo and maybe the TTC logo to go along with them (optional).

    For example, a location at Ossington and College might have a streetcar logo and either “506 Carlton” or just “506” and a bus logo “63 Ossington” or “63”. A subway station may just need the typical TTC subway train logo and the name of the station.

  13. Fin: Wow, you suggest that people focus on what’s important and they whine and leave. Geez.

    you’d never say that to my face if I was contributing an idea.

    I have done that in person and I would. You should see me when I run meetings: they don’t veer off topic, they always finish on time, and stuff gets done in order of importance.

  14. Hmm. There doesn’t seem to be an obvious way to join that “Save TTC Signs” Facebook group…

  15. Eric, you have to be a member of the Stonemasons-like Facebook and a member of one “network” (Toronto will do).

  16. I personally think that the current “standard” TTC signage is acceptable, but it needs improvement. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with the typeface, since I’m not nostalgic for the old TTC typeface. However, I think that the major flaw of the current TTC signage is the small colour bar that indicates which line you are on. This thin colour bar is small, hard to see, inaccessible to the colour blind, and non-obvious. I propose reviving the idea, in a more modern incarnation, of numbering subway lines. It would help people who are unfamiliar with our subway system, in particular people who can’t read English. I would place it in a bullet, like the MTA signage, and I would use the internal numbers for the subway lines which were used in the test in the 1990s. I would abandon the use of “Transit” and “Rapid Transit” as used on the signage at St. George, and use more widely understood terms (Subway, streetcar, bus). Also, the signage on the Sheppard line is confusing because it indicates the next station on the line in large letters, but not the terminus. Other than that, there are no major problems with the new-generation TTC signage.

  17. Other than that, there are no major problems with the new-generation TTC signage.


    I suggest reading what Joe Clark has written on TTC signage. The “new generation” signage is awful.

  18. Andrew, I don’t recall anyone’s suggesting that Sheppard-style signs should simply be re-typeset in the old TTC font. First, while TTC thinks they may have their own TrueType version, the only commercially available variant isn’t so hot. Second, TTC itself cannot typeset in that font properly– look at the pylon sign outside the opera house, or all the panel signs on the concrete walls of the Sheppard line. Third, we don’t do signs in all upper case anymore.
    Helvetica, the TTC’s fake Helvetica, and all the fonts in that family do not work for signage because of confusable letter shapes (maybe not to you), blurring into each other when illuminated, too-close letterspacing, and other issues. At root, this is not a case of “I think that font is OK” (your claim) or “I think that font is prettier” (a hypothetical other claim). The issue is “Which typeface(s) can we prove work best?” Nobody has even bothered to try to prove that since the Paul Arthur experiment.
    Think function, Andrew, not taste.

    And thanks for listing a whole slew of major problems with the Sheppard signs, then concluding that there aren’t any.

  19. Part of the TTC’s current reorganizing also requires a good look at marketing and communications.

    This includes everything from rethinking public consultation, preservation of TTC icons and history, merchandising and the promotion of the ‘product’.

    I’m trying to follow any developments in these areas, including ways that Toronto businesses and organizations can promote transit use. If that does develop into a separate effort, somebody please let me know.

  20. To answer Nick J. Boragina’s question (I had to look it up), the “consultative process” is listed at ending with “complete design” on September 26. That says nothing about build times, and I know the whole thing has to be delayed because a planned open house on June 20 didn’t happen (nor apparently one at City Hall June 18–20).

    The exact construction dates might be buried in another document somewhere. Or it might not happen: “Council has only approved design but not yet approved funds to cover the Station Modernization Construction [capitals sic] that would result from this design.”

    I wonder why the TTC can’t bring itself to type answers to questions like these into blog comment boxes.

  21. Good work Mr Clark.

    I refer to the emphasis on testing the usability
    of the sign system.

    Usability should not be limited to graphics, however,
    lots of untested and unusable things keep people from using transit.
    There should be more attention placed on testing and proving transit designs of navigation aids, stops, vehicles, fare structure, comfort, etc.

  22. There may be good news coming up, but I’m gonna wait till I have something I can actually link to.

  23. Actually, Steven, the TransInfo database can lead you to a lot of usability research on transit systems. Not the kind you’re really looking for, maybe – do a check. I have some great papers about LED signs on buses and suchlike.

    I also keep forgetting that TTC did its own user test of platform-edge-marking strips, which we now know as the nubbly yellow tiles at the edge of the platform. I was stunned to read that not only were blind people and wheelchair users tested, so were women in high heels.

    Usability testing! Based in reality! And TTC did it all by itself.

    Let’s return to those glory days, why don’t we?

  24. A signage design competition is a good idea. But the TTC should run it and have prizes.

    That got me to thinking – how about a design competition for new stations that would be built if/when the TransitCity or MoveOntario plans get going?

  25. No, Mobius, starting with the design aspect of the TTC signage problem is the worst idea.

    It leads to nonexperts (like TTC executives) offering their uninformed personal opinions. “I like it” or “I don’t like it” are unhelpful and irrelevant statements if we don’t know that a design works. Function first, design second. In case anybody is about to go off the deep end, this does not mean that a functional sign cannot be “attractive,” whatever that may mean. But if you start with a design discussion, then you allow nonexperts to confuse design with decoration, which is already what happens at the TTC.

    TTC has admitted that they pull bits and pieces off other sign “systems,” to the extent they actually are systems. Ten people submitting one family of signs each will merely give nondesigners at the TTC 100 more elements to pick and choose from. We need a system, not another mishmash. A system isn’t going to come from an OCAD student beavering away in their spare time. (And do you have licences for all your fonts?)

    Also, I don’t know how many times I have to advise everyone not to work for free for a billion-dollar corporation. Nor do I see any rational counterargument. (What, TransitCamp? Sure, it was fun, but that’s all it was.) The TTC needs to pay for expertise. If you’re a designer, that expertise could be yours.

    Design competitions are, by their nature, a scam. It seems we have to remind people of this every time it comes up. In a competition, you are working on spec. Why not just play Lotto 6/49? It’s about as likely to get you ahead.

  26. The problem is that the contests the TTC come up with, the winning entry is often bad, so I’d also be vary wary of a public design contest.

    The name for the TTC’s new subway cars chosen was “The Toronto Rocket”. How about Howard Moscoe’s “Pizzaz Me” contest that we never knew what won, because apart from a few extra buskers, all I remember is Moscoe in a Little Bo Peep outfit.

  27. What do you suggest then, Joe? Should the TTC create an internal position or department if they don’t already have one for signage? Or should they just arbitrarily choose a design firm? Some sort of competition or tendering process, be it wide-open or just for professional firms, must be necessary.

  28. I’ve already explained what the TTC should do: Count the existing signs first (I have a proposal in), survey what other transit systems have done recently, then start a carefully considered program of testing. This would probably have to be put out to tender at some point due to the dollar values involved. But then again, Jack Diamond never seems to have to win a tendered contract, so maybe we could just skip that.

    In that list, design is very far down. This is the wrong time to be having a discussion of what font you like most for TTC signs (but not the wrong time to discuss why current fonts do or do not work).

  29. From what I understand, wasn’t the platform at St George part of the usability testing process?

  30. From what I understand, wasn’t the platform overhead signage at St George station part of a usability testing process?

  31. Matt, you double-posted, but I still don’t understand your question. Which exact overhead signage?

  32. Joe, sorry for not being specific. I realized how many generations of signage exists at St George.

    I’m referring to the overhead signage on the Bloor-Danforth platforms that look similar to those on the Sheppard subway.

  33. if everyone in toronto describes subway station design as “early canadian bathroom”, why preserve it?