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27.11.2013
Julia Turner is the editor in chief of Slate and a regular on Slate‚Äôs Culture Gabfest podcast. Consider the case of one traveler and the ways in which Penn Station's signs might confuse her. When I first started interviewing sign designers for this series, I was surprised that they didn't talk much about signs. Instead, I learned there's a reason professionals call what they do not "sign-making" but "wayfinding." Their goal is to help users find their way through complicated environments. Next the wayfinding team will identify every key decision point—every place where a visitor might stop and think, Where do I go from here? Only then, once all this information has been determined, will the wayfinding team start thinking about the design of the signs. Within each of the station's three concourses, the various wayfinding designers direct users primarily to the tracks and amenities of whomever they're working for. I asked David Gibson, a principal at the firm Two Twelve and the author of a recent book called TheWayfinding Handbook, to tour the station with me and examine its signage. Gibson was impressed by the feel of the New Jersey Transit Concourse, which is the most recently renovated.
The signs use a serif font—an unusual choice in transportation signage, where sans-serif typefaces have long been in vogue. Mike Gallagher, Amtrak's Superintendent of Passenger Services for Penn, pointed out via e-mail that while each tenant manages its own signs, Penn has "ample signage throughout the station, directing passengers to the area of the station they are looking to travel from." But having lots of signs is a pale substitute for having signs that really speak to one another. Lance Wyman, a pioneering wayfinding designer, recalls encountering this problem when doing some work for Amtrak at Penn in the 1990s.
Fixing Penn Station's wayfinding would be a challenge, primarily because the architectural structure of the place is not readily apparent to the traveler. The current space, a warren of underground bunkers, is difficult to visualize unless you've been there many times. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is set to announce a timetable for the long-awaited expansion of Penn Station.
Port executive director Patrick Foye is due to tour the site Tuesday where the first phase of construction is taking place. Phase I will expand the 33rd Street connector between Penn Station and the Farley post office building across 8th Avenue. When you have confirmed your password, you will be able to log in through Facebook on both sites. Sign up to have exclusive New Jersey Insiders contests, events, coupons, presales, and much more delivered to you for FREE.
The bustling train terminal, located on the West Side of Manhattan, is a sprawling mass of tracks, corridors, and concourses spread across three levels. She's a New Yorker who works downtown, and she needs to catch an Amtrak train to Washington, D.C. When people find their way through buildings, they are often guided as much by the space itself as by any posted signs. Its signs also use a sans-serif font, although one that's slenderer and more delicate than Helvetica.


The architects created a pleasing environment with a pink-and-black-stone color scheme, and the piped-in classical music creates the sensation of a cultured commute.
But most designers agree that serif fonts can work for signage as long as the line spacing and type size is well handled. He told me that after a meeting, he once asked, " 'Who can I talk to to try to coordinate all of this working as one system?' And one guy said, 'Oh, we don't talk to each other.' He was joking but he wasn't joking, you know? But David Gibson pointed out that a wayfinding design team could take advantage of the distinct spaces the three tenants have already created.
But it's a useful place to examine, because it highlights the single most crucial thing a wayfinding designer must do: think about the user and understand how he will perceive a space. It will create two new entrances into the station from the Farley building and improve access to tracks by adding escalators, elevators and stairways.
To create a sign system that works, designers must first understand how people will use a space. It's also important to decide what information will go on each sign, doling out directions only as needed.
Penn Station is owned by Amtrak, which manages its concourse on the western side of the station. But the current system assumes that the user experiences the station as three distinct spaces. It's in directing travelers to other parts of the station that Penn's sign systems often fail.
Gibson noted that the white Helvetica type is quite legible on the dark ground and that the type size is sufficient.
Passengers already sense that the station has different zones; the wayfinding team would need to work to heighten those contrasts, and strengthen the cues that help people identify where they are and where they need to go. When signs are good, and you pay attention to them, you can sense the level of thought that went into them. It's the busiest train station in North America, crowded with around 200 million passengers a year.
During her long walk down the main corridor, she passed more than five signs that made no mention of Amtrak, causing her to doubt the route she was on, even though it was right.
When beginning a hospital project, they'll map out all the possible routes a visitor might take.
A woman getting out of a cab at the airport doesn't need to know where the gates are yet—she just needs to know where to check in. But Amtrak leases the rest of the station out to the two other tenants: New Jersey Transit has the southeast corner, and the LIRR the northeast. In truth, though, as we saw in the slide show above, many journeys require travelers to cross from zone to zone. This gives travelers a consistent place to look, but it also means that directional signs compete with retail signs for attention. Transit joined forces to promote trains to New Jersey's Meadowlands Stadium last fall—but such initiatives are sporadic and ad hoc.
Someone, somewhere, anticipated the journey you are on, and the information you would need.


And there's a giant sports arena, Madison Square Garden, squatting on top of it, so much of this activity occurs underground, in low-ceilinged tunnels devoid of sunlight and fresh air. And when she reached the Amtrak concourse, there was no sign properly identifying that she'd arrived. People are also more likely to get lost in a building without distinguishing features visible from the street.
The concourse managers even play the electronic sound of chirping birds near the track entrances to guide visually impaired travelers to a special kiosk that can help orient them.
Although one board is labeled "Amtrak Departures," the other just says "Departures." How is the first-time LIRR passenger to know she's in the wrong place?
Passengers can enter from several portals to the street, or from scores of stairways from individual rail and subway tracks underground. At Penn Station as a whole, it's no one's job to think about how you'll get where you're going.
A hospital complex with two prominent towers may be easier to navigate than one situated in a giant boxy building.
The key problem, however, is that signs to other parts of the station are sparse and inconsistently located. Transit riders to Amtrak and the LIRR, although it might confuse a passenger looking for the subway lines.
It would be tricky to determine where to place orienting maps and other cues to welcome new arrivals. The other victim, Lamboy, was taken to the hospital in critical condition, officials said.Two men who attend a nearby methadone program at the West Midtown Medical Group, about a half-block from where the shooting took place, said they knew two of the victims, Quinones and Lamboy. If, at any point, she'd given up and doubled back to the beginning, she would have lost time and been even later for her train.
If they're designing new signage for an existing space, they often quiz the security guards.
If the architecture is confusing, wayfinding designers may ask the architects to make changes, or they may devise sign systems that try to clarify the space. The low ceilings are probably to blame for the skinny signs and small type—any bigger, and taller passengers might have to duck.
They said both men came to the clinic for years."They were real nice guys, straight guys," said Michael Gessow, 39, of the Bronx, who said he has been coming to the clinic for 10 years. Unfortunately, however, given the hulk of Madison Square Garden upstairs, New Jersey Transit can't do much about them. He said the outpatient, substance-abuse program, which serves roughly 900 people, has been around for more than 20 years and has no history of violence.The McDonald's where the victims were initially approached by the gunman has become a gathering place of sorts in recent years for former addicts and others who attend substance-abuse programs located in the surrounding area.



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