Wayfinding In The NYC Subway Sucks. Here Are Three Ways To Fix It

New York City has the largest subway system in the world and some of the worst subway signage. Either a station doesn’t have enough signs or it has too many, creating unnecessary confusion. Service changes—a ubiquitous feature of a system with 468 stations and 656 miles of track—are enumerated on little posters, then tacked up haphazardly around stations. Sometimes, they’re written by hand. Occasionally, they’re written in English. It’s a wonder tourists don’t end up in Far Rockaway every day.

The Original Champions of Design (OCD), a New York branding agency, are floating a hypothetical alternative that gets at the heart of NYC’s subway signage problem: It’s a 21st century system hopelessly stuck in the 20th century. Below, we’ve got a summary of their proposal, which they presented at GOOD Design New York City (hosted by our very own contributor Alissa Walker) during Urban Design Week on Monday:

Embrace technology

OCD proposes mounting digital signboards at each and every station (some places, like Penn Station, have already done this). "Routes are ever-changing and those paper updates are even more impossible to navigate than the tracks," OCD’s Jennifer Kinon says. "With digital displays, realtime updates can be fed to travelers and we can all avoid the visual clutter and loudspeaker mumbles." The studio also wants to introduce a GPS system that would let straphangers plot their route on a device, even underground. "One of our favorite features of the proposed GPS system is the feedback loop it creates," Kinon says. "When you go off course you are alerted and so is the MTA. What better way to learn where the signage is confusing and fix it?"

Maps of subway stations
New York’s subway stations are maddening rabbit warrens. I’ve lived in the Village for four years, and I would not be able to sketch the layout of the West 4th Street station to save my life, even though I use it virtually every day. OCD’s solution: Provide maps of the stations themselves so people stop getting lost before they ever board a train.

First Car
Ah, tourists: Their incessant zig-zagging, their insistence upon walking three in a row, their remarkable ability to stop in the busiest, narrowest passage imaginable. Shouldn’t they be shunted off to a cage or something? Actually, yes. But OCD has a nicer term for it: First Car, a designated subway car for tourists that’d come complete with city guides, T-shirts, and other tourist bait. OCD even came up with a larky campaign to promote it: "Get In. And Get Inspired. Get In. And Get Souvenirs. Get In. And Get Out Of The Way."


Obviously, OCD’s ideas are more trained on provoking new ways of thinking about signage than offering up a viable alternative. True, digital signboards are already under way. But GPS would be tough to implement, and you can’t assume everyone’s going to carry a device all the time. Station maps pose different obstacles. On Monday, a representative for the city pointed out that there’d be no way to install them across all five boroughs because stations operate semi-independently, the suggestion being that individual stations have the authority to post—or decline to post—extra wayfinding material.

As for First Car: It’s a fun concept, but it’ll never happen. If the city can’t organize a few station maps, it sure as hell can’t organize clueless tourists into a single car. Maybe the moral of the story here is that subway signage isn’t the only thing that needs a redesign: City bureaucracy could stand a few tweaks, too.

[Images courtesy of OCD]

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  • bob_mac2005

    Could not agree more with the comments about the signage. I have ridden subway systems all over the world and the NYC system is the worst by far. It is truly incomprehensible. New York may not realize it but people who are not New Yorkers do take notice of these things. Obvioiusly there is a mentality in New York that the subway does not matter. Don't understand this provincialist attitude.

  • Paul Lincoln

    Just back from New York which was a great place to be a tourist apart from the truly terrible sign systems. Have a look at the Legible London - initiative run by the Mayor for London. This integrates tube system, buses, walking maps into a signage system works quite well both above and below ground. The key issue is not about getting the technology right but creating information graphics which are consistent for the viewer wherever they find themselves. It is essentially a graphic design problem which New York absolutely needs to solve if it is to preserve its tourism market.

  • Corbinprez

    Great concept. Shows not only what's necessary, but also what's possible via a wayfinding system. And as a past and future clueless tourist in NYC, I would be on this like a hobo on a ham sandwich.