Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Problems with Penn Station

I'm not a huge fan of Slate (I think there's a fair deal of truth in contrarian-by-design criticism) and so I don't see everything they publish, but every once in a while one of their pieces either touches on a personal interest or is just so damn good that I hear about about it through those social networking sharing cycles. Here's a perfect example of the latter: Julia Turner's six-part series on signage.

Turner touches on everything from highway road signs, to competing EXIT sign designs to the varying maps and symbols people use to navigate London. But my favorite piece is the one titled "Lost in Penn Station." There's tons of good stuff here, but here's a choice selection:

When I first started interviewing sign designers for this series, I was surprised that they didn't talk much about signs. I'd expected to learn a lot about typeface and color selection. Maybe, if I were lucky, a revolutionary new arrow.

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. That requires a lot more than good-looking signs. To create a sign system that works, designers must first understand how people will use a space. When beginning a hospital project, they'll map out all the possible routes a visitor might take. How would a patient with an oncology appointment get to it? How about a visitor to the maternity ward? If they're designing new signage for an existing space, they often quiz the security guards. No one knows better what people find confusing.


The problem at Penn Station is not that designers skipped these steps. It's that three sets of designers did them three times. Penn Station is owned by Amtrak, which manages its concourse on the western side of the station. 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. (The Metropolitan Transportation Authority oversees both the LIRR and New York City Transit, which manages the two adjacent subway stations; their sign systems are similar to the LIRR's.) The fundamental wayfinding problem at Penn Station lies in the fact that each of these entities manages its own signs, usually without consulting the others. As a result, the station essentially has three different systems of signage.


Penn Station is a remarkably challenging environment for wayfinding. 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. When signs are good, and you pay attention to them, you can sense the level of thought that went into them. Someone, somewhere, anticipated the journey you are on, and the information you would need. At Penn Station as a whole, it's no one's job to think about how you'll get where you're going. And you can tell.

I love the idea of asking a security guard about problems visitors run into. This is exactly the type of architectural thinking that I find fascinating. The essential question is: How do people interact with the spaces they inhabit?

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