Visual Language: Signage

Published September 20, 2017

For our second Visual Language class, we looked at signage and wayfinding systems – systems which constitute such an essential and ubiquitous part of our designed world that their effectiveness in conveying information can be considered a public interest.  As pedestrians we use and depend upon these visual markers dozens of times within a single commute for directions.   And as drivers we look to them to convey essential right-of-way information and rules of the road within seconds.  In addition to quality of life improvements (ease of transit, less time spent struggling to understand a cluttered sign, etc.), well designed signage and wayfinding systems can increase public safety and save lives.

That said, taking a step back to consider the signs in my home city was difficult.  As masters of pattern recognition, we (humans) can absorb information from the worst of sources when we are given a large enough sample and time to understand it.  The hours I’ve spent over the years squinting at MTA weekend updates means I can quickly and easily find information relevant to my commute.  It does not mean the sign is well designed.  Actively considering those signs which fail to effectively convey information means un-learning the pattern-recognition which allows us to glean information from them and look at the sign’s visual design anew.

Below are some examples of effective signage:

Art Studios near Tisch:

I like this sign for a couple of reasons: the font coloring matches the wall color and the lettering appears integral to the lintel, rather than an appendage.  Leave it to an art studio to have a well designed sign.


Above is an example of two organizations using the same sign style.  UBREAKIFIX is a phone repair shop near Tisch.  CITYMD (photo from their website) is a walk-in urgent care clinic.  I would argue that UBREAKIFIX is not using the style particularly well, but it works for CITYMD.

And some examples of bad signage:

This sign is organized alphabetically (except when it isn’t).  Perhaps the information would be more easily read as part of a map which highlighted rerouted trains and skipped stations.

Sign content:

The sign’s text reads:

CAUTION Passengers Only Hold Handrail Attend Children Avoid Sides No Open Strollers

Along with this text are two separate icons:

  1. One is clearly a baby in a stroller circumscribed by the universal red circle with a red slash through it — indicating that strollers are not allowed.  A side note: I assume by “open stroller” and “closed stroller” they are referring to whether it is collapsed, but there is some ambiguity there.

  2. The second icon is of a mother holding the hand of her child on the escalator with no fewer than four items of particular interest circled in red for extra attention: the two lower sides of the escalator (which one should avoid), the handrail (which one should hold), and the mother’s hand holding the child’s hand. Although how one might hold the handrail while avoiding the sides of the escalator is unclear to me, the main problem with this sign is that it required several minutes of my time to unpack and is intended for an audience that will see it for no more than a few seconds at best. In short, this sign fails in that it tries to highlight entirely too much information.  The result is that no one pays attention to it.

Sign placement:

The signs (two nearly identical ones with slightly different graphics) are placed beneath the handrail on one side of the escalator.  On a quick glance, it is unclear if they are intended to be complementary or one was intended to replace the other.  In any case, as people are always walking past that area, it is very difficult to read.

My Re-design:

I wanted to focus on redesigning this sign with one idea in mind – how to improve safety on escalators.  Most people who ride the subway daily know how to ride an escalator, and proper escalator etiquette (stand right, walk left).  Those who don’t – tourists who may not speak English, for instance – wouldn’t have been helped by the original sign.  So, my first choice was to move the sign from its current position on the handrail to somewhere everyone could see: on the floor in front of the escalator.

That done, I wanted to use this relatively larger area to get one message across to increase safety: stand right, walk left.  Below are some of the preliminary sketches I made with this in mind.

Finally, I chose the footprint design which I felt told the most information in the most universal way.

And mocked it up on an image of the new escalator in the bowery station:

(Photo from