Urban Cartography, Curated

In the early 1930s, having walked 3,000 miles of city streets, Phyllis Pearsall failed to sell her A–Z street guide to Selfridge’s department store and other London booksellers. Undeterred, the work of the hardy pedestrian cartographer eventually met more favorable responses. By 1938, the famous paperback A–Z Atlas and Guide to London was a firmly established fixture of life in the capital.

Fast forward some 75 years to present-day New York City. Designing a map for a major city, its 8 million residents and its 50.9 million annual visitors is as formidable a challenge as Pearsall’s ever was. Though the appetite for a definitive city map is no longer the singular preoccupation of an eccentric individual, and while the formats for developing it have transformed from shoeboxes of index cards to geographic information systems software, the obsessive qualities of the task remain essentially the same. 

NYCwayfinding_01_628; cartography

Designing an “infostructure” for urban infrastructure is still, fundamentally, about making sense of place. Making cities legible is still about making people, tourists and locals alike literate in their surroundings. 

With a fifth of all local car trips under a mile, a third of all visitors getting lost in the city each year, and visitors spending an estimated $34.5 billion annually, the Department of Transportation had a strong case to design a better system for navigation. “Well-designed wayfinding can unlock even more of New York’s boundless potential, transforming our streetscapes in subtle but very tangible ways for residents, visitors and businesses,” says Janette Sadik-Kahn, then DoT commissioner.

At first glance, getting around New York isn’t that hard. It is, after all, a planned city where finding one’s way should rely on nothing more than counting upward from zero on Houston Street, memorizing a few avenues with proper names and knowing which way Broadway bisects the island of Manhattan. And yet, even the most discreet tourists give themselves away with a subway map. To New York natives who barely leave their neighborhoods, the rest of the city might as well sit on some distant Saul Steinberg horizon. So it turns out, we have a lot to learn. 

Designing New York City’s wayfinding infostructure demands a delicate balance of user needs and the integrity of public space. 

New York’s geography depends, if not thrives, on a bricolage of stories about itself. Even living here, it takes a while to realize that besides the network of the initially incomprehensible subway map, there’s no one definitive guide to the five boroughs, only thousands of partial interpretations. The city generates constant self-referential images through movies and videos to paintings, novels and geopolitics. But every day neighbors, commuters and wide-eyed explorers find themselves sidestepping sacks of heaped garbage or dodging slush piles, double-wide strollers or tiny dogs down any city block—revealing that this stream of stories and movement indeed shapes the ways “place” is meaningful to us.

Making a place uniformly meaningful, navigable and accessible to all demands a single reference for navigating on foot and, as New York’s bike share scheme launched in 2013, two wheels. Unlike most other city centers in the U.S., it’s possible, desirable and almost required to navigate New York City on foot or bicycle. New York needed an official map. Not a paper, fold-out map or a “You Are Here” in front of a landmark, but definitive data about the city as urban information “material,” ready to cut to any size, any format. To create that single reference, the city commissioned a living basemap, a mix of details perfected from secondary data sources, fact-checking legwork and stringent content and visual standards.

Already collaborators on an equivalent scheme for London’s city center and Olympic Park, urban strategists City ID and cartographers T-Kartor joined visual designers Pentagram, industrial designers Billings Jackson, and project engineers RBA group in New York to form interdisciplinary design consortium PentaCityGroup. Led by City ID’s Mike Rawlinson and guided tirelessly by senior designer Harriet Hand, the team’s task was to produce a scalable, living database of more than one map, a seamless resource that would support not only the street signage fabricated for the first phase, but also integrate with other digital information and services: a massive application of research-driven big data to the modern world. 

Designing the City: Walk NYC 

“The same topography that made the city a successful port and gateway to America still defines the way we all experience the place,” says David Gillam, City ID senior designer. “The city’s layout, and our movement within and across it, is shaped by the environment. It gives us an inherent sense of place but also presents barriers to movement and inaccurate perceptions of distance.”

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Pedestrians refer to a map in midtown Manhattan. The narrowest of the three sign types, these were designed for the densest city streets.

With data serving as the project’s core, the street signs were just the first of the city’s map products. As information appeared on every CitiBike kiosk, showing cycle routes and the location of other docking stations, three sizes of new signs specifically for pedestrians also featured the same map content on standalone panels in open spaces, at intersections and midblock on city streets and avenues. In its initial phase, the system first appeared on the streets of Chinatown, Herald Square and 34th Street, Prospect Heights in Brooklyn and Long Island City in Queens.

The project’s designers tackled multi-layered Illustrator files along with the challenges the data and the streetscape presented: What scale and orientation works best on the street? How accurate and how general should the roadbed be if this is for walkers? How do we ensure consistency across different areas of the city? How do New Yorkers give directions verbally, and how should the signs support that? How similar to the subway graphics should these be? How will this extend to other modes of transit besides walking and biking? Where does one neighborhood area end and another begin? What will be labeled or not labeled? Which buildings are landmarks and which ones are actually useful for orientation? 

The basemap would become an interface of answers for all these mighty and minute considerations. The team managed to account for all forms of urban morphology within the five boroughs in just four pilot neighborhoods, devising a basemap to accommodate a street grid, off-grid streets, light industrial, residential, waterside areas, cultural and municipal and tourist landmarks, bridges, tunnels and transit networks. Coherence and consistency were the goals across boroughs and within each Business Improvement District, which, in the end, would pay for the cost of signage installation and maintenance. 

Base map content was ratified by neighborhood and community organizations, and rigorously tested on passers-by with full-scale prototypes. The team drew up content standards to create filters for labels at every level of the information hierarchy on every sign, from directions, street names and services to building numbers, standardizing how many churches and which hospitals show up, and whether or not flagship retail stores appeared, all the while striving for durability of content in a city that is ever changing. 

PentaCityGroup made a clear choice for the look of the basemap. But then the team had to figure out: What should the signs themselves look like? How do we link the map to the subway, but make the typography and colors smart and aesthetically pleasing above ground? The answer was to fit the form to the vertical, bold profile of surrounding skyscrapers, and to embrace the custom cut of the typeface Massimo Vignelli used for NYC Transit. The resulting font is Helvetica DoT, for the DoT’s exclusive use. “Our research confirmed our hunch that the subway graphics were what people had in mind when they think of transportation in New York,” Gillam says. “Extending this graphic language to the Walk NYC system helps users recognize the city’s official voice. Linking what’s iconic below ground with what we’d introduce above ground quickly became the logical and best option for users.” 

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Over 100 prominent buildings are illustrated and overlaid on the basemap to help pedestrians orient themselves.

The network of pedestrian signs now extends to Times Square and into downtown Manhattan. Custom cuts of the map also appear on the official printed fold-out New York tourist guides, along Select Bus Service routes, already in the Bronx, and will soon be featured in subway stations as exit guides. There are plans for digital applications to follow. As DoT aligns with New York City Transit (MTA), NYC&Co, more of the city’s business improvement districts and other partners, the ultimate goal remains that the system will embed itself firmly enough in the urban landscape to yield, one transit mode at a time, a single information brand for wayfinding across the city. Pearsall would be proud. 

Turnstone Consulting’s Rachel Abrams was special adviser to PentaCityGroup in 2012, leading research and fieldwork for the Walk NYC and CitiBike wayfinding project.


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About Rachel Abrams

Rachel Abrams established Turnstone in 2006. London-born and -raised, Rachel has worked in New York since 2001, first for IBM on user experience strategy for ibm.com, then as an interactive content strategist for Imagination, the leading, award-winning, independent, interdisciplinary branding consultancy. Rachel teaches in the Interaction Design and Design for Social Innovation MFA programs at the School of Visual Arts, is a Board member of the New York chapter of the American Institute for Graphic Arts, a Fellow of the Design Trust for Public Space, and formerly, an adjunct professor at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. To date, over 25 publications have featured Rachel’s business illustrations and writing on design. She regularly gives talks about Turnstone work, locally and internationally. In ’90s London, Rachel was a current affairs researcher for the BBC, The Economist and in the UK Parliament. Inspired by the then-emergent Web, design school taught her to tell tales about the near future more effectively and more beautifully. Turnstone started life sharing a studio with enterprise partners, Constellation. Multidisciplinary designers, technologists and strategists, the group included The Map Office, Potion Design and others, able and available to support each others’ work on larger, complex projects. Rachel has an undergraduate degree in Social and Political Sciences from Cambridge University and a Master’s degree in interaction design from the UK’s Royal College of Art.

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